Why Your Mute Button Is Your Key To Success

BY C. Lee Smith
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Tabitha Laser, organizational design wizard, author and recent guest on our Manage Smarter podcast, likes to joke that she was born without a “mute” button. She told me she had a mute button installed. That got me thinking. Maybe all managers should be more aware of their mute buttons and when to use them. Being quiet, listening and learning are key for leaders who have just joined an organization or who have moved into a new role. Laser explained the details, which are included in her forthcoming book, Organization Culture Killers, to us. Here’s what we learned. 

How to Succeed as an Incoming Manager

When new managers join an organization, the first thing they typically do is look at what their predecessors did. This analysis is critical, especially if the predecessor was let go. The last thing a new manager wants to do is repeat the mistakes that were previously made. Before you know it, some new managers change everything.

In her work with large organizations, Laser has seen this scenario play out multiple times. When Laser coaches managers who need to understand how to take on a new challenge, she suggests using gap assessments. Back in the day, people called these top-​down organizational reviews ‘audits.’ Over the years, audits got a bad rep.

Assessments, though, can be applied with a positive intent. Managers have an idea of what organizational success looks like. During a gap assessment, they’ll learn about the assets they have. Properly done, these assessments help managers understand the broader picture, such as the risks and challenges the organization faces in the marketplace. 

Managers who want to get the unvarnished truth from team members should keep their mute buttons active during this time. Why? The minute they begin to give their opinions, they can expect team members to stop being honest. Because employees will tell a new boss what they think that person wants to hear. 

How to Succeed as a Promoted Manager

Managers who’ve been promoted face some of the same challenges as an organizational newbie. But they also come with baggage. They may think they understand what’s happening in the company. 

Making that assumption could be a big mistake. It's far better to get up-​close and personal with the truth. Instead of doing management training in a classroom, they should ask if they can take a different approach to ‘learning the ropes.’ They should spend hands-​on time in different departments and learn to handle different situations. 

The most important aspect of this approach is to observe and listen with their mute buttons on. And because team members may be hesitant to speak up, new managers should ask everyone to take a culture assessment. The results of that assessment, says Laser, will help managers see the organization from a top-​down perspective.

Is there ever a time when a manager can turn off the mute button? Of course. Managers need mentors. They need someone to share their ideas with. Once they find a couple of co-​workers or leaders they can trust, they can start talking.