The Street Smart Law Blog

Writing 2
  • Frederick L Shelton

Advanced Leadership Techniques: The Lunchroom Dynamic

I am perhaps the LEAST intimidating boss in the world but…

Seriously, no one gets on a call or in a meeting with me, without laughing. My team will confirm that if someone makes mistake, I typically reply with "This is great! You just made the rest of the team better!"

In other words, instead of getting angry, I embrace the mistake and use it as a learning tool to teach others what to avoid. My teams really appreciates this.


I’ve been telling the troops that while I can teach them a great deal (and I do!), a good leader knows that all of us are always smarter than any of us. Yet I’ve felt like I just haven’t been getting as much out of them, as I could. I’ve tried repeatedly and long before the meme came out, was fond of saying

"If you think your idea is too bad to share, remember that one day, a gal in a meeting said 'Hey, let's make a movie about sharks that attack people out of tornadoes!”

Still, I wasn’t getting the level and volume of ideas coming upward, that I knew was possible with the group of highly educated and brilliant professionals attending our meetings.

So regardless of whether I have humility and a self-deprecating sense of humor, I am a victim of my own success . I simply can't ignore what I call "The Lunch Room Dynamic".

I decided to try an experiment. The home team would lead a Boss-less Zoom Meeting to determine whether we could get more ideas. We always endeavor to figure out how to do things better, use tech more efficiently and enjoy our profession even more.

The results of the first Boss-less Meeting were astounding! Whereas previously I might get one Outside the Box idea in a month, I was delivered several great ideas from a single Boss-less meeting.

Was it a fluke? An aberration? Another meeting was held and produced the same results.

Now boss-less meetings are held on a regular basis. The results remain impressive.

To be honest, my ego was a little bruised. I asked my people about this in one on one meetings. Without exception they confirmed that I am NOT intimidating at all but I’m a brand in my profession. I’ve been quoted in Forbes, Success, Bloomberg etc. My people attend meetings where powerful innovators, CEO’s and Managing Partners thank me for being generous with time. So regardless of whether I have humility and a self-deprecating sense of humor, I am a victim of my own success. I simply can't ignore what I call "The Lunchroom Dynamic".

Remember how freely you spoke in the lunch room, early in your career? In addition to the usual gossip, everyone talked about how they would do things differently and better than management. The only reason we all spoke so freely? No bosses around.

I would offer the results of this experiment up for other leaders. The boss may be the nicest person in the world but when the boss isn't there, peers speak differently and more freely.

Bad bosses speak at their people. They are ego driven and will even mock the ideas of their people. So extracting brilliance from others doesn’t even occur to them. Great bosses respect and appreciate their people. They encourage them to shares ideas and acknowledge their contributions.

The irony is that this can produce the opposite effect intended – at least to a degree. Team members will share ideas that are safe, but many of the most innovative ideas will go unshared. Why?

Sometimes the best thing you can do to inspire greatness in others, is to give them chance to produce it without you.

If you’re a great boss, an inescapable, psychological dynamic is that your people will want to impress you. They won't want to say something stupid or that might embarrass themselves, in front of you. Being a great boss can actually be a detractor to innovation.

However, when you're not around, the Lunchroom Dynamic will kick in and they WILL speak more freely.

What I find both rewarding and amusing is that once they bounce the ideas around among their peers and realize the value they bring to the table, they want to make sure the boss knows who came up with the idea they presented!

Think about the psychology there. Whether consciously or sub-consciously, they don't want to share the idea directly with you. But once they get validation, they want you to know the idea was theirs. Powerful stuff for leaders to know!

My ego wants to be convinced that I need to be there for the best meetings to occur – and in some ways that is true. But one of our family axioms is "Don't let your ego get in the way of your success."

My meetings are engaging, interactive and valuable. Their meetings are also engaging, interactive and valuable. But they are different because the boss is not around. They have the freedom of The Lunchroom Dynamic.

Sometimes the best thing you can do to inspire greatness in others, is to give them chance to produce it without you.

Besides, the only downside is I have one less meeting to attend!

That's not so bad.