I belong to a large Facebook group where people discuss social issues and organize activities to help different causes.The group has had trouble with repeated racial conflicts and cultural misunderstandings recently, and members are trying to understand each other better.

To help, a black member of the group (I’ll call her “Sarah”) shared a blog post. It explained how a lot of common “How to Avoid Being a Racist White Person” advice was waaaaaaay off base – and actually making racial conflict worse. It had critical reviews of popular articles, explanations of how their advice was counter-productive, and alternative suggestions that actually would help.

The group had a looong, intense, really positive discussion about the article and our issues. We talked about the author’s explanation of why those suggestions did more harm than good. We asked each other questions. We had an awesome exchange. We were all learning how to prevent misunderstandings and do better in multi-cultural situations.

And then “Diane” entered the conversation. 

Diane’s a well-known writer and professor specializing in a few specific intercultural and social issues. And when I say “well-known,” I’m talking been on national news programs and a few bestseller lists level well-known. She’s got a book contract and her own Wikipedia entry – and that isn’t just a stub, either. While she’s a prominent writer for the group, she’s not active in the Facebook group on a daily basis.

Diane made one comment – just one, innocent-seeming comment – but my jaw literally dropped open when I read it.

Diane: “This is important. I’m glad to see this conversation happening. I need to work on this, too.  I’m writing my own version of must-read articles on this subject like this one _______, and I’m writing an article about how we should do X, Y, and Z [to be less racist]!

In horror, we all realized that Diane had just posted a link to the exact article the blog author said gave the worst advice.  And the X, Y, and Z she was recommending? They were the same things the author had said were counter-productive. Two dozen of us had just spent a few hours and 100+ comments discussing both of these things in depth.

A few minutes later, my in-box was full of messages from people in the group who watched the exchange. What did Diane just do?” they asked. “Did you see that? She just did exactly the thing we’d been discussing not to do. It was so embarrassing!” and “I cringed when I read that. How did she miss the fact that our whole conversation was about why those ideas don’t work?” and “Did she even read what Sarah posted??

Eventually, Sarah replied: “See, the blog explains why it is that that article is full of bad ideas about fighting racism but people keep sharing it. Y’know, it’s really frustrating to keep trying to discuss this issue when people don’t listen.”

And Diane quickly came back and wroteSorry, Sarah, I didn’t know that so many people didn’t like the article. Good to know.

That was it. Diane still didn’t understand, and she was apologizing for the wrong thing. None of us had known that so many people objected to the article before we read the blog post! But we’d read it and learned. It was obvious she had skimmed the blog post and the comments before putting on her “expert” voice and jumping in.

One of my lawyer friends explained it as “Diane just did the online equivalent of my boss poking his head in every five minutes when I’m negotiating a contract to shout crap like ‘Keep up the good work!’  It makes him feel involved and important, but it’s totally useless and disrespectful to our clients .”

Why had she obviously not bothered to read our comments? Why did she miss the entire point of the article so completely? Why had she waltzed in, given her blessing to a conversation, and promoted her project that way? Why had she made a comment that added absolutely nothing to conversation- that actually derailed it fast?

If our conversation was so “important,” why hadn’t she listened to it?

The answer is simple: It’s hard to listen on a pedestal. Diane is an idol for a lot of people, and a lot of people who join the Facebook group are pretty star-struck when she actually comments/interacts with them. As a teacher, quasi-celebrity, and writer, she’s used to people seeking out her opinion, promoting her causes, and angling for her praise.

None of those are bad things on their own, and Diane is a wonderful woman who has earned her place in the world. Let me tell you – she is a kind, compassionate, thoughtful woman who really tries to make the world a better place I’m sure she meant to to encourage the conversation. She just – wrongly! – assumed  that we were students who needed her guidance, expertise, and approval.

But we didn’t need any of that, and she was so uninformed that she couldn’t have given it to us if we did. We weren’t children or students being tutored.  We were experts in our history of misunderstandings (because they’d watched them play out), experts in being a minority (like Sarah), experts in asking questions (because we’d pondered the material). We were equals respectfully asking questions about each other’s expertise to solve an important problem.

We were making progress engaging, and we really needed needed the people in charge to engage with us instead of talking at us.

As Glennon Melton put it so wellyesterday,

“Hot air rises – and the higher you go the thinner the air gets – and so it’s hard to breathe on a sizable pedestal…I don’t want a pedestal that separates me from people- I want to be IN IT with people.”

Pedestals – anything that separates someone from the problems of people they represent or supervise – make leaders and executives lose perspective. They can magically transform you – yes, you! Reasonable, kind, well-intentioned YOU – into an Evil Boss. Because the higher up you get in an organization, the more opportunities you get to shared your opinions – and people have to listen.  Too much time on that pedestal and you start to think your most important job is sharing those opinions. We can get so used to people asking for our approval that we assume others need it. Experts get used to knowing more than everyone else does – and that puts them in danger of assuming they *always* know more than everyone else. And when your default setting is talking instead of listening, you’ve been sucked into the illusion that you’re better informed that everyone else.

If a person as intelligent, kind, professional, thoughtful, and successful as Diane can fall for it, trust me: every one of us can make the same mistake if we spend too much time on a pedestal. 

The only way to prevent it is to start recognizing and demolishing the pedestals that separate you from your people. When you’re in charge of anything – any organization, any person – you can’t help if you’re only engaging superficially from above. And you can’t engage at all until you shut up and listen.

Your job isn’t tell people when they’re having an important conversation. And it’s not to tell them how you think they should fix their problems.

Your job is to listen to the conversations they tell you are important. Your job is to listen to them explain their problems to you. Because they’re the experts on them. They experience them every day – while you only hear about them second-hand! And your job is to listen to them weigh possible fixes, and then help them get what they need to make those solutions happen.

Most of the time, you’ll discover that you don’t actually need to say anything – because your people are doing a damn fine job solving problems together when you get out of their way. 

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.