A few years ago I worked on a project to make a company’s LINE account (the dominant chat app & eCommerce platform in Japan) easier to use. The idea was to leverage contextual data & user inputs to recommend a “next best action.” Being fairly innovative at the time, I often had to use analogy to help people understand what we were building, and I found the most effective was to refer to our project as “GPS for LINE.” It wasn’t a perfect analogy, but it got the job done: we were building something to help you get where you need to go in LINE.

One day in a review with my Managing Director, I mentioned the GPS analogy. He hummed for a moment, and then suggested that it was actually more like an advisor in LINE. 

I don’t recall what he said after that. He may have given some perfectly logical explanation. I had a good relationship with this MD and I’m sure he meant well. And he may have been right; maybe that analogy was better at the time. It didn’t matter, because I cared a lot less about the project from that point on. 

I remember feeling that if he was going to do the thinking for me, why do I need to work so hard at it? Regardless of whether his analogy was in fact 1% better or not, was it really worth it? Considering this was a subjective topic, for the sole purpose of helping explain a complex technology internally, most definitely not. 

This is a gift and a curse for high-achievers–they feel an insatiable instinct to add value. And like all humans, sometimes their instinct is correct, and other times it is misguided. But that’s besides the point. If you’re right on some trivial detail that makes something 1% better, but you’ve sapped the team’s level of commitment, you’ve failed as a leader. Part of being an effective leader is letting go of the need to be right.

I heard an interview once where Jean-Pierre Garnier, former CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, shared what he had learned while leading a massive global company:

My suggestions become orders. If they are smart, they are orders. If they are stupid, they are orders. If I want them to be orders, they are orders. And if I do not want them to be orders, they are orders anyway.

Garnier went on to say that he learned to always take a deep breath before he’d reply to anything. In that moment of reflection and calm, he would ask himself is it worth it? 

Without question, there are times when it will be worth it. I won’t let one of my team members go on stage and give an “F” presentation to a board. But when they are fully capable of giving an “A-minus” presentation on their own, and I want to chime in with a few nitpicks that can turn it into an “A,” I’ve learned to bite my tongue. Ironically enough, I’ve found that more of than not, the team member discovers what my feedback would have been (or an even better insight) on their own. 

So shut up. 


Ask: is that 1% really worth it?