Mar 8, 2023

Placebo Leadership

Placebo Leadership

Placebo Leadership

Nathan King

I became a manager at the young age of 27, and was struck by how simple many of the problems were that the team brought to me to solve for them. The reality was that people could solve these simple questions without me perfectly fine. Why was this happening?

At first, I reveled in the importance of providing the answer. I must be really ahead of the game, I thought. I lifted my chest higher. The future seemed bright.

But occasionally someone asked me to solve the not-so-simple problem. One question was, "Alice hasn't reported to work for three days. What do we do?" Another was, "the regulatory agency sent us a letter pointing out we were out of compliance in our process. How do we solve it?"

I had no quick solution to these thorny questions. Why was the team burdening me with such stressful situations?

Not wanting to reveal my incompetence with the complicated question, I practiced my best Socrates impression. I turned the question around about what to do with Alice.

I asked, "Well, what do you think we should do?"

She responded with something that I never would have thought of, a wise mixture of reason and grace. It was brilliant.

"Let's do that," I said.

If employees were able to solve the complicated questions without me, then why were they asking me to solve the simple questions (that appeared to reveal my brilliant leadership qualities)? It turns out the simple problems came to the manager for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Employees believed they didn’t have authority

  2. They didn’t want to put in the mental effort

  3. They didn’t want to be alone

That was when I realized that the boss is often a placebo. "Give me the medicine," the employee says. And when they get it, the medicine doesn't help them, but they think they needed it.

I first learned about placebos when I was a child and my grandfather, who suffered from alzheimers, was enrolled in a clinical trial. My mother told me he would take pills to help with the disease, but we didn't know whether they contained the medicine that hopefully would cure his disease or a placebo, which she described as a "sugar pill." I hoped earnestly that the pills would not be filled with sugar and that this tested medicine would actually make the difference.

I thought it cruel to not give real medicine to someone, and instead tell them this little pill might be filled with sugar but you will never know.

But there is something interesting that happens in clinical trials. Many participants in clinical trials treating a range of conditions experience health benefits of the placebo. A 2018 article on the topic produced this hypothesis:

the placebo effect is a biological response to an act of caring; that somehow the encounter itself calls forth healing and that the more intense and focused it is, the more healing it evokes.

Managing a team suddenly becomes much more profound. Those simple questions the team brings up aren't because they are dumb or lazy. Often, they reveal a desire to be cared for.

In the years since I first asked the question, "what do you think we should do?" My reperotoire of questions when people approach me with a problem to solve has expanded. But one thing has remained the same: much of the time, the people who report to me know how to solve their problem, they simply need to believe it.

They need to know someone believes in them.

You can try it out for yourself with the people who bring you problems.

  1. Set the expectation with each person who reports to you: when you have a problem and you need help, come with a proposed solution before you ask for approval or permission.

  2. In a conversation when someone asks you what they should do, use one or more of these questions:

    1. What do you think we should do?

    2. What are some ideas you have to solve this problem?




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