Each room has a powerful dynamic. If you’re the CEO and you’re in the room, you control that dynamic. Positional power is cemented in your hands, and what you say and do can bring people out or bring them back into anxiety and fear.
In my work with hundreds of CEOs over the past 25 years, I have observed some people muddy the room intellectually and emotionally by creating an “echo chamber,” and others clear the space by creating a meritocracy of ideas. I have seen that there is no arena where the “insidious curtain of respectability”—a term coined by the American diplomat George Kennan—creates a more dangerous distortion of reality than when the CEO meets with other members of the organization.
The CEO paradox is that your job is to encourage useful ideas, but your presence can work against that goal. So can your desire give you the dark side of charisma to admire? Ironically, you have to overcome interpersonal responsibility to fulfil your role. By default, you have a profound effect on the room by adjusting the quality of inputs, conversions, and outputs.
Consider the fact that the personal reputation, career opportunities, and job security of your employees are at risk. For you, the viability and success of the organization are at stake. You understand that silence is expensive, but your people understand that silence is safe. You understand that constant feedback leads to good decisions, but your employees understand that constant feedback is a form of self-preservation. You know that fear breaks the reaction, but people also know that fear surrounds the reaction.
So how can you create a high level of psychological safety to foster an unbiased exchange of ideas and unedited feedback? Here are 10 practical ways to make it happen:
1. Let someone else lead the meeting.
Since you have a power peak, you can change the power dynamic with small tweaks to set up the encounter. For example, if you let someone else lead the meeting instead of taking the reins yourself, you visibly redistribute power, aligning yourself more as a player-coach. This has the added benefit of giving you a better view of the content and interaction between the two screens.
2. Don’t sit at the end of the table.
In many physical spaces, seating reflects hierarchy. If you follow rituals that reflect a power structure, it encourages guarded behaviour and foul language. Break these rituals if you don’t sit at the head of the table. Mix it up. Don’t let people hang out in certain areas. Show others that you are agnostic about title, status, authority, and power reserves by constantly remodelling your physical space, including your personal proximity to the same people.
3. Create warmth and informality.
It would be nice if you could personally greet each person and contact each meeting, but you can’t. You can create an atmosphere of psychological safety by using your emotional intelligence to convey warmth and encourage cooperation. Pay attention to the smallest signals you send, including gestures, facial expressions, and vocal characteristics (intensity, tone, volume, speed, and pitch).
4.The vulnerability of the model works.
You have the primary responsibility to model the actions of vulnerability and give others permission to do so. It’s disarming, especially when people in the room are making risk/reward calculations about what to say or not say. The quality of the conflict between ideas depends on your permission and respect for the opinions of others. If you don’t show personal vulnerability, silence replaces productive tension. So try the following:
- Challenge yourself publicly.
- Ask for help.
- Admit what you don’t know.
- Point out a past mistake.
- Express your insecurities.
5. Encourage questioning before influencing.
Lateral, divergent, and non-linear thinking is needed in space. Going from asking questions to defending your position too soon will gently censure your team and signal the end of the conversation.
There are two types of surveys: explanatory and exploratory. Exploratory inquiry uses data to understand current performance based on cause-and-effect relationships. Exploratory research uses data to make assumptions and predictions about what might be possible. Explanatory research helps improve implementation, while exploratory research fosters innovation.
Whether your focus is implementation or innovation, ask thoughtful questions surrounded by compassionate curiosity. It acts as an equaliser and dilutes the difference in power. Make statements like:
Help me think about it…
I’d like to know…
I wonder why…
I can’t wait until we find out how…
Let’s see if we can solve this problem together.
6. Reward challenges to the status quo.
One CEO I’ve worked with likes to raise an issue and then ask everyone in the room to challenge his position. He says, “Tell me why I might be wrong.” “Help me see my blind spots.” He then stops and has everyone sit in silence until the first person is brave enough to challenge him. He rewards vulnerability by immediately saying, “Thank you.” I might have missed something. “Let’s explore your perspective.” He knows that suppressing dissent increases the risk of bad judgment, and he’s done it so often that challenging the status quo has become normalised behavior.
7. Push back with humor and enthusiasm.
Add productive tension to the room where another CEO I worked with makes intelligent use of humour and enthusiasm. For example, he asks, “Can I wrestle you in this place?” which always gets a smile and a positive response. Humor and enthusiasm are not only disarming but also add excitement to the process and demonstrate a commitment to rigorous discussion. This approach also takes the emotional edge out of high-stakes conversations. If you can disagree without being autocratic, it leaves the conversation open to others.
8. Buffer strong personalities.
There can be introverts, extroverts, and strong personalities in the room. Remember that introverts may prefer to process quietly and non-verbally, while extroverts may enjoy verbal and public processing. contains strong personalities, especially those who lack self-awareness. Do not allow claims of dominance or overly dogmatic behavior. One CEO does this by saying, “When we discuss this issue, don’t take more than your fair share of air time.” I want each of you to ensure equal participation. Remember that insecure people tend to elevate themselves by putting others down. Your job is to create an environment of shame and shamelessness. The higher up the power structure, the deeper the potential humiliation if things go south. Finally, draw the quiet ones. Ask the question in advance and give yourself time to think.
9. Listen and pause.
When you listen and stop, you show respect unmistakably. You are telling the person that they deserve to be seen, heard, and understood. There may not be a more effective way to empower another person. If you do this in the presence of other members of your organization, you send a clear message that the person is important. I know a CEO who does this exceptionally well. He listens carefully and sometimes takes a long pause. Often people try to break the awkward silence, but he gently raises his hand to express an unbroken rule. These moments of truth encourage others to think more and more and to participate.
10. Give well-targeted praise and recognition.
Add precision to praise and recognition. Instead of saying, “I appreciate that insight,” make it very specific by explaining why. The “why” explains how the contribution is valuable, which both reinforces the behaviour and trains the person for deeper analysis. Instead, you can say, “I appreciate this review because you’re helping us identify other areas of risk that we didn’t pay attention to.” One CEO I worked with avoided suggestions of unnecessary or uncritical praise because he believed his job was to constantly expand the critical thinking of his people. Don’t push away praise or recognition, and don’t be stingy.
Give it to her in a moment with an explanation and genuine encouragement.
As the CEO, You are first among equals, but your presence determines the power dynamic. Take the opportunity to consciously plan for this dynamic. If you instil fear, seek admiration, or allow hierarchy to trump truth, you are abdicating your role. But when you develop the psychological safety to clear the space, you expand your role and increase your influence. Remember Dickens’ description of Fezziwig’s effect on a room: “He has the power to make us happy or unhappy; make our service easier or more difficult; joy or woe.” “Say that his power is in words and looks; in things so small and insignificant that adding them up and counting them together is impossible.”