Some leaders-- specifically, those with a Visionary style-- use debate and discussion as a way to frame their thoughts and opinions.
To find out what they really think about a problem or issue, they will often set up a straw man. This is usually a stance directly opposite to that with which they have been presented, and then challenge others to push back with their thoughts and opinions. Eventually, out of this often heated discussion (the theory goes), a true and tested consensus will emerge, honed and strengthened by the rigorous debate.
All well and good--and, if used properly, very powerful. At least, that's how it starts out.
Unfortunately, over time, the Visionary leader's habit of 'talking to think' very often degenerates into a tic or identifying characteristic, and becomes less of a useful tool than an irritating source of confusion to others.
This happens when the visionary leader loses sight of the most important part of 'talking to think': involving others in the talking part.
Whether it's because they grow to like the sound of their own voice, or because they like to combine 'talking to think' with manipulating their team, or simply because they surround themselves with weak people, eventually, what were once vibrant discussions descend into rambling monologs.
This is bad enough in itself. Who wants to hear their leader sound like King Lear on a bad night? But it's positively dangerous to the growth of the organization when it is left unchecked. Eventually, subconsciously aware that he or she has lost the interest of their immediate audience (their direct reports), the Visionary-leader-who-needs-to-talk-to-think begins to prowl the corridors, reaching down and across the org chart to find someone on whom they can impose their muse.
Corridor discussions, ad-hoc chats, phone calls out of the blue, lengthy emails to surprised subordinates, hi-jacked meetings: they all begin to play their part in helping the visionary leader scratch their itch of needing 'talking to think'.
I needn't write a paragraph explaining what happens next. You've either experienced first hand, or you can imagine, the havoc wreaked when the Visionary leader's little time bombs of musings start to explode throughout the organization:
Boom!...He said what...?
Boom!...Really? We're doing that...?
Boom!...She can't be serious...!
Boom!...That's not what he said to me...
Boom!...That just doesn't make sense...
Boom!...That's not what we decided last week...
Boom!...So that's our policy now...?
Boom!...When did we agree to that...?
...you get the idea.
Let me be straight: these are not (necessarily) bad leaders. They just suffer from a 'talking to think' Tourette's syndrome that can be cured. If you suspect you're one, here's how to cure:
1. Look for the collateral damage.
Most visionary leaders think that everyone else is just as flexible, open-minded and capable of dealing with ambiguity and contradiction as they are. Hence, they don't really understand the damage they cause when they spray the workplace with their carpet bombs.
Get someone you trust. Ask them to make a list of half a dozen specific instances where people have been worried or confused, or made bad business decisions as a result of misinterpreting 'talking to think' as gospel. Have a quiet, unemotional, fact-based discussion- sorry, visionary leader - and see the real effect of your actions. Enlist the help of others to back up your case with their own examples. The goal should be to have a discussion that isn't confrontational or causes anyone to get defensive.
2. Get an outlet.
Visionary leaders need to talk to think, so it's unrealistic (and wrong) to expect them to stop. What you need to do is help yourself find a suitable forum for doing so. Hire an executive coach (this is one of the very few genuinely good reasons for doing so), join an organization like Vistage or the Inc. Business Owner's Council, or put together their own mastermind group.
3. Set internal boundaries.
Just like it's icky when Daddy dumps his criticisms about Mom on to the kids, the visionary leader needs to see the inappropriateness of over-sharing willy-nilly in the organization. Agree on broad outlines of where, when and with whom 'talking to think' can happen internally, and be accountable to those guidelines.
4. Restore healthy debate.
The biggest shame of the degeneration of 'talking to think' is the loss of healthy debate at a senior level in the organization. To restore this, set specific, agreed upon times aside for brainstorm/blue-sky/bull sessions - whatever you want to call them - involving you, in which you and your peers commit to full engagement, and you commit to avoiding anything that sounds like a monolog (these sessions can be part of your regular management meetings if you wish, but don't let them take over the whole agenda).
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