The Shadow Diminisher

By Rob DeLange, Master Multiplier Practitioner
Aug 1st, 2016

Shadow Diminisher

Most of us have experienced two very different types of leaders: Multipliers (leaders who make the people around them smarter and more capable) and Diminishers (those who believe that they are perpetually smarter than others and thereby squash the intelligence of those they lead). Liz Wiseman showed in Multipliers that when people managers embrace the mindset and practices of the Multiplier, they get vastly superior results from their people.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where Diminishers seem to outnumber the Multipliers, which is why so many people are looking beyond salary and title to work for a Multiplier boss—knowing that this will greatly accelerate their career growth and increase their satisfaction at work.

In my experience coaching managers at all levels, I’ve made the surprising discovery that Diminishing behavior doesn’t always originate from the boss. In some cases peers or powerful stakeholders in the organization can actually have an even more potent, diminishing effect on the workforce.

Wyatt (names changed to protect confidences) was a new college graduate who accepted a position with a construction company as a safety supervisor. In addition to his bachelor’s degree in Public Health, he had completed internships working as an Industrial Hygiene Technician. This combination of practical work experience and his education background positioned him well for success.

The excitement and anticipation was tangible as Wyatt entered the office on his first day of work. He thought his new company would give him great exposure in the field of occupational health and safety. Wyatt also hoped he could find a mentor who could “show him the ropes.” He learned that half the workforce at his new company spoke Spanish, and Wyatt was pleased to use his bi-lingual language skills.

A big part of Wyatt’s job was documenting and logging incidents in accordance with OSHA regulations. This often involved translating verbal and written instructions between English and Spanish. He also handled various administration tasks for his boss Karl and Barb in HR.

Karl had recently been promoted to Safety Manager, but had little experience in that area. Barb had led HR and Safety for more than 12 years—but because of job restructuring initiated by the executive team, Barb’s traditional dual role had been split (much to her dismay).

As early as his second day, the political dysfunctions of the organization became very visible to Wyatt. Karl had asked him to review the existing training and share ideas on how to improve it. As soon as Barb got wind of that, she forcefully intervened saying, “No! You need to be making copies.”

It was apparent to Wyatt that although Safety was no longer officially part of Barb’s role, she still considered herself to be the de facto Safety Manager—and Karl was too new and not assertive enough to stand up to her.

First thing in the morning during Wyatt’s first week on the job, he would sit down with Karl to prioritize work for the day. However, Barb would often swoop in unannounced before lunch and order him to stop doing the things on Karl’s list. Wyatt was sure that Barb was actively spying on him to prevent him from carrying out Karl’s agenda and keep things running according to her narrow view of the world.

As time went by, Wyatt learned to be more efficient in “checking the Barb boxes” so he could get her agenda out of the way and still have time to work discretely on Karl’s priorities. He learned to work in stealth mode for Karl while performing tedious admin chores for Barb that she deemed essential. It was a delicate balancing act.

Wyatt’s discomfort increased dramatically when he found evidence that Barb was making unethical edits to incident reports. He had even seen her terminate employees without cause when they had valid accident claims. Most of the time, Wyatt was easygoing and adaptable—but not in situations where integrity or ethics were compromised.

Although Wyatt had lost all respect for Barb and knew that his efforts to go above and beyond were punishable offenses in the eyes of HR, he still pushed himself to contribute more.

Things came to a head at the end of week 2 when Wyatt had a chance to observe a safety training delivered by Karl. He saw that it could be significantly improved, and Karl agreed.
In fact, Karl gave him ownership for the next month’s topic on the spot. Wyatt eagerly started working on the PowerPoint and training materials that same day.

On Friday morning Wyatt and Karl invited Barb to review the safety topic and changes—a meeting they both dreaded. What happened next was the most demoralizing and disrespectful business discussion ever to play out in Wyatt’s career.

Wyatt put up the first slide and was just starting to share his work. Before ten seconds had elapsed, Barb leapt out of her chair and cut him off.

“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” she blurted out. Barb came to the front and continued, “You’re trying to operate up here”, she said as she raised her right hand a little above eye level. “But we need you to operate down here.” Barb lowered her arm to her lower torso.

Wyatt was shocked. He believed that most organizations were looking to raise the bar and get more from their people, but that certainly wasn’t the message he was getting here!

Barb ended the conversation with a demeaning stare. “Just follow orders and fill your clerical position.”

In spite of Barb’s resistance, Wyatt got to showcase his new safety training in front of the entire management team during his third week of employment. It was so impressive to the company’s leadership team that they actually gave him a standing ovation! How many times have you seen that in response to SAFETY training?

Even in that setting, Barb’s wrath was inescapable. Within five minutes of the start of Wyatt’s presentation, she walked out of the room in disgust, visibly irritated by Wyatt’s success.

After it was done, each of the managers shook his hand and told Wyatt how impressed they were with his work. But not Barb. She flagged him down in the hallway and said, “I need to see you in my office.”

Once inside, Barb spewed out a list of everything that wasn’t right in his presentation: his grammar, his delivery, missing procedures, etc. Wyatt simply took the high road and pointed out that everyone else seemed to like it. He didn’t let Barb’s venomous tirade spoil what turned out to be one of his crowning achievements – and it was even more extraordinary given the active resistance he had to overcome from Barb along the way!

Although Wyatt somehow managed to stay on the job for several more weeks, he had already effectively checked out in the “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” meeting. He learned that any initiative, creativity and extra effort on his part were not only unwelcome but actually threatening to Barb, a control freak HR overlord who had promoted herself to Captain of the World.

The combination of a weak boss and the toxic environment cultivated by HR was far too constraining to allow Wyatt to have any meaningful career growth there. He soon resigned from the company—even though he didn’t have another job lined up at the time.

Wyatt learned in his exit interview (not with Barb) that he was the seventh person brought into his role that year—and it was only October! His six predecessors had departed for exactly the same reason: a hostile, demeaning work environment.

The story does have a happy ending for Wyatt, however. Two months later he found a safety manager position at another construction company with double the pay and better benefits. More importantly, he now works in a business with leaders that recognize his talents and put them to work.

If you find yourself in a situation like Wyatt’s, your best strategy is to exit as fast as you can! Don’t let a Diminisher put your career on the sidelines. You deserve better.

If it isn’t economically feasible to leave right away, seek out clients, internal stakeholders or peers who appreciate your talents, and operate in stealth mode. Spend as much time as you can away from the oppressive, never-satisfied Diminisher and start doing your best work with those who appreciate it. This increases your chance to be discovered by other managers who may open a path for you to be promoted or make a lateral move.

Leaders who become aware of Diminishing behavior that inhibits the growth of the team have a responsibility to coach, correct and, if necessary, remove the blockers. KR Sridhar did that with one of his chief scientists at Bloom Energy, and Matt McCauley dismissed a very capable director while CEO of Gymboree simply because she was “being a jerk”. That kind of leadership takes courage. All too often, Diminishers are tolerated because of their tenure or subject matter expertise while the rest of the workforce suffers.

If we truly embrace the way of the Multiplier and believe that everyone is smart and capable of greatness, we can open a conduit of growth by reducing diminishing behaviors— whether it comes from the boss or from others.

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