Nov 20

Beware the HiPPO!

We were facilitating a team development session recently for a group of teachers and administrators. We’d spent the better part of an afternoon discussing things like “trust” and “communication” (much more to come on both of those), and we were just wrapping up the day with some exercises and conversation around the Right Use of Power.

A couple of teachers were getting into some lively debate when it happened. The dreaded HiPPO showed up.

Don’t know what a HiPPO is? It’s the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. And it’s often as equally unassuming and brutally dangerous as the animal that makes its home around waterbodies in Africa.

In this particular instance, the highest paid person in the room wasn’t trying to shut down the conversation, quite the contrary, they were trying to contribute to it. But when you’re the leader of a team or an organization, you have to be aware not just of what you’re saying, but how and when. After they had made a “pronouncement” of sorts, it wasn’t just that the previously lively conversation toned down. It ended.

There are times to be decisive, no doubt about it. Decisions need to get made, and if you’re the HiPPO, chances are high that you’re often looked to to make those decisions. An unintended consequence is that when you speak, your words carry more weight. People are used to following your direction. And in the event that you’re trying to contribute to a debate or a brainstorming session, your opinion will often be mistaken for a declaration of fact, even if  you didn’t intend it to, and it’ll often shut down the conversation.

Often, HiPPO’s are considered such when they run organizations through their own instincts and experience, ignoring both data and the reasoned, rational arguments of the people around them. Perhaps HiPPO syndrome is the shadow side of vision, conviction in one’s beliefs and perseverance…three traits that often get rewarded as people move into more and more of a senior leadership role.

We often see HiPPO’s playing out more subtly in organizations. From slightly dismissive body language to impatience with brainstorming and team deliberation, many leaders unintentionally have a negative influence on the robustness of their team’s conversation, and ultimately their performance.

HiPPO’s have their place, to be certain. They just need to know where it is.

About The Author

Jeff is an experienced leader in the nonprofit, education and community sectors. His vision is to help people (and organizations) change for the better. From leading multi-disciplinary professionals to facilitating change management, keynote addresses to small group facilitation, Jeff has a knack for engaging teams in the conversations that matter.