Bob Osborne is the director of church health for EFCA West. He is passionate about equipping, encouraging and strengthening church leaders: “Our good intentions are not enough; we actually need to implement them.”
I am the owner of eight bobble-head dolls, a peculiar subset of the category of things known as collectables. I slowly acquired them over the span of several years whenever I entered Dodger Stadium to watch baseball games.
They are called bobble-heads because when you tap their spring-supported, oversized heads, they, well, bobble. They are called collectables because when you acquire them, you somehow feel guilty about getting rid of them, so they collect on your bookshelves and countertops.
Many years ago, both at work and at my church, I began to notice what I call the Bobble-Head Phenomenon. It goes like this: A team or group is asked for input regarding an issue or topic by a strong leader (whether strength coming from personality, from position in an organization’s power/leadership hierarchy, or from some other personality or behavioral trait).
The leader provides his or her ideas, inputs or recommendations first; then other members of the team or group tend to nod in agreement. They do not routinely offer their own perspectives, opinions or ideas about the suggestion. They look like a collection of bobble-heads.
For those who think in formulas:
Strong leader + strong first inputs = bobble-head phenomenon in the team.
Please note that there is nothing wrong with being a strong or dominant leader and nothing wrong with being a quieter or more introspective leader. But both need to work well together, because in a team, it is important that the entire team contributes, especially in significant conversations.
I remember sitting in an executive meeting several years ago and hearing an idea put forth from my agency’s top leader that was not logical or otherwise well thought-out. Yet when he asked his executives at the table for their thoughts, they all nodded in unison. Any conversation about the issue occurred in hallways well after the actual meeting, and none of those conversations was positive about the boss’ idea or useful to changing the outcome.
At first, I was irritated at the meeting participants for not speaking up (yes, including myself). But then it dawned on me that the boss had set this up by the way he handled the conversation. He basically put us in the awkward position of passing judgment on a decision he had already made. Rather than seeking our input, he was asking us to line up behind his decision.
Depending upon a leader’s tolerance for opposing opinions, offering public criticism can be a recipe for disaster. To avoid this, the team shuts down and merely assents.
Assuming that the candid, unfiltered and honest opinions of teammates are desired, how might a strong leader go about inviting them? Here are some questions to consider to jump-start your team’s effective conversations:
Consider ways to lessen the likelihood of watching this phenomenon unfold before your very eyes:
In the EFCA West District meetings, we have found it helpful to take this last point one step further: We strive to present ideas before we even start a first-draft. That way we can include the team’s input in that draft. It takes a little longer but gets everyone involved.
The bobble-head phenomenon is seldom intentionally created. It just happens. So we must work vigilantly to avoid it—a responsibility not belonging solely to the leader but shared by the entire team. Soliciting input early and creating a culture of discussion rather than approval will lead to better decisions and a stronger, more united leadership team.
Read Parts 2 and 3 of this series, "Are You Too Forceful of a Leader?" and "The Best Leaders Take Time to Sharpen Their Blades."