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It’s 10:00 AM and the VP business meeting is about to start.

In this meeting at some point, Alex makes a provocative comment, questioning whether everyone in the room is pulling their weight during a challenging restructuring of the firm… Alex’s comment doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

A few minutes later David, a man a bit senior to her in the organization, offers what amounts to the same comment. Suddenly, the group engages around the idea and the conversation moves in the direction Alex had originally hoped. The meeting is adjourned. David walks away feeling influential and Alex is feeling invisible and frustrated.

What’s really going on here? Why was Alex rendered invisible? Why was David allowed all the credit?

The following case study, inspired by Heifetz and Linsky “Leadership on the Line”, forces you to confront your own diagnostic tendencies to refine your own diagnostic skills.

Answer the questions on your own first, then read the five possible interpretations that follow:

1. She Was a Victim of Prejudice. The group may not take women’s views as seriously as those of men. Similarly, if Alex is quite a bit younger than David, the group may be prejudiced, perhaps unconsciously, against young people. Or, her political ideas might make people uncomfortable.

Alex may remind people of a problem in the society, and the group may unconsciously ignore her business suggestions as part of a larger pattern of ignoring the social issue that she brings to mind.

These explanations trigger a group’s reaction for any aspect of the non-majority culture that Alex might embody.

2. Her Style. Perhaps Alex spoke in a manner different from the style preferred by the group. For example, she might have spoken with too much zealous conviction and power that everyone tuned out. Demonstrating too much aggressive self-assurance might have reduced her credibility.

3. Her Track Record. Alex’s and David’s roles and reputations might have influenced the way they were heard. David may have demonstrated more consistent insight and competence over time. He might have had a proven track record on the subject. While instead Alex might be new and not known yet by the group.

4. Her Status. David might have more formal authority in the organization than Alex . In most organizations, people pay more attention to those at the top of the hierarchy, whether or not that attention is warranted.

5. Her timing. She spoke too soon for the group to understand the issue. Alex may have been brilliant on her own merits and might have been thinking faster than the rest of the group so that, at the time she spoke, the group lacked enough familiarity with the issue to deal with it. It can take time for other people to catch up to a new idea. So it could be that by the time David made substantially the same comment, Alex’s insight from before was now “ripe” and people were ready to talk it up.

To harvest the learning from this brief case study, answer the following questions:

1. Which interpretation was your own “default interpretation”? Why?

2. Which interpretation you would have never thought of? Why?

We hope you enjoyed this case study that is part of our leadership exercises series.

I want to leave you with a thought: whether you are Alex, David or a member of the group, it might be helpful to entertain more than one interpretation for the complex life of groups we encounter in our personal and professional life.