Do You Suffer From the Bobble-Head Phenomenon?

Team dynamics we don’t usually talk about, Part 1

I am the owner of eight bobble-head dolls, a peculiar subset of the category of things known as collectables. I slowly acquired them over the span of several years whenever I entered Dodger Stadium to watch baseball games.

They are called bobble-heads because when you tap their spring-supported, oversized heads, they, well, bobble. They are called collectables because when you acquire them, you somehow feel guilty about getting rid of them, so they collect on your bookshelves and countertops.

Many years ago, both at work and at my church, I began to notice what I call the Bobble-Head Phenomenon. It goes like this: A team or group is asked for input regarding an issue or topic by a strong leader (whether strength coming from personality, from position in an organization’s power/leadership hierarchy, or from some other personality or behavioral trait).

The bobble-head phenomenon is seldom intentionally created. It just happens.
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The leader provides his or her ideas, inputs or recommendations first; then other members of the team or group tend to nod in agreement. They do not routinely offer their own perspectives, opinions or ideas about the suggestion. They look like a collection of bobble-heads.

For those who think in formulas:

Strong leader + strong first inputs = bobble-head phenomenon in the team.

Please note that there is nothing wrong with being a strong or dominant leader and nothing wrong with being a quieter or more introspective leader. But both need to work well together, because in a team, it is important that the entire team contributes, especially in significant conversations.

Bobble-heading in action

I remember sitting in an executive meeting several years ago and hearing an idea put forth from my agency’s top leader that was not logical or otherwise well thought-out. Yet when he asked his executives at the table for their thoughts, they all nodded in unison. Any conversation about the issue occurred in hallways well after the actual meeting, and none of those conversations was positive about the boss’ idea or useful to changing the outcome.

At first, I was irritated at the meeting participants for not speaking up (yes, including myself). But then it dawned on me that the boss had set this up by the way he handled the conversation. He basically put us in the awkward position of passing judgment on a decision he had already made. Rather than seeking our input, he was asking us to line up behind his decision.

Depending upon a leader’s tolerance for opposing opinions, offering public criticism can be a recipe for disaster. To avoid this, the team shuts down and merely assents.

Change the conversation

Assuming that the candid, unfiltered and honest opinions of teammates are desired, how might a strong leader go about inviting them? Here are some questions to consider to jump-start your team’s effective conversations:

Strong leader + strong first inputs = bobble-head phenomenon in the team.
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  • Do we sometimes suffer from the bobble-head phenomenon? Any examples?
  • Who are the more dominant, verbal, think-aloud people on our leadership team? Who are the quieter ones whose inputs may need to incubate longer? How can we draw out their feedback?
  • How often does our team actually work through real disagreements? If this doesn’t occur at least occasionally, we likely have created a bobble-head environment without knowing it.
  • How can our strong leaders obtain other’s thoughts and opinions without presenting their own first?
  • In what types of conversations might the bobble-head phenomenon pose the greatest danger to our team and the church? How can we be especially vigilant when making these types of decisions?

Consider ways to lessen the likelihood of watching this phenomenon unfold before your very eyes:

  • If the decision is of high importance, ensure that every team member speaks to the issue. (Vision clarity and strategic decisions are of high importance; approving the minutes of the last meeting is not.) Our elder team requires that with any significant issue, every elder must say something specific about his support and concerns, rather than simply, “I agree with Jason.”
  • Sometimes it is helpful to have someone other than the dominant leader facilitate meetings.
  • In his book Sticky Teams, EFCA Pastor Larry Osborne1 provides helpful advice about presenting first drafts, not final proposals. “A strong, initiating leader who presents everything in final form puts the rest of the team in an awkward position,” he says. “Those that hate conflict become rubber stamps. Those that fear domination dig in and become adversarial, either aggressively or passive-aggressively.”

In the EFCA West District meetings, we have found it helpful to take this last point one step further: We strive to present ideas before we even start a first-draft. That way we can include the team’s input in that draft. It takes a little longer but gets everyone involved.

The bobble-head phenomenon is seldom intentionally created. It just happens. So we must work vigilantly to avoid it—a responsibility not belonging solely to the leader but shared by the entire team. Soliciting input early and creating a culture of discussion rather than approval will lead to better decisions and a stronger, more united leadership team.

Read Parts 2 and 3 of this series, "Are You Too Forceful of a Leader?" and "The Best Leaders Take Time to Sharpen Their Blades."

1 Larry Osborne is senior pastor of North Coast Church (EFCA) in Vista, California.

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