When They Roll Their Eyes

In a session for senior leaders we were discussing how to learn from and create social excellence.  A meaningful discussion was unfolding.  A woman shared an illustrative story.  In the process she included a small observation.  “When I made the suggestion, two of my people rolled their eyes.  They always roll their eyes.”

The comment, as intended, brought laughter.  It was not meant to be a significant part of her story.  When we finished the overall discussion, I called the group to an awareness of her comment.  I suggested that it might be important.

I indicated that in every group, there are eye rollers.  These are people predisposed to neutralize any act of leadership.  While we laugh about such observations, the eye rollers are actually quite powerful.  The simple fact that they were mentioned and that everyone laughed is an indicator of their ubiquity and their power.

We know they are there.  We know that are going to roll their eyes.  So, when we think of any possible initiative, we pre-evaluate it.  We think of the eye rollers and the need we have to justify the strategy to one or more such cynics.  At that point we let go of many of our ideas.  We never try them.

This means we all tend to be controlled by negative peer pressure or the power of the eye rollers.  Most authority figures in any given hierarchy live in fear of questioning and marginalization.  Yet most authority figures will not publicly own such fears.

This fear is always working.  In our teaching we give executives many tools for creating social excellence.  The tools are simple and effective.  Yet only a very few tools are adopted by a given executive.  The reason is that each executive knows that there is a danger.  If they go home and announce a new practice, they will hear something like this; “Oh did you learn this in charm school last week at the university.”

It sounds like a funny line that is meaningless.  It is not.  Authority figures live in terror of hearing such words.  They live in terror of eye rolls.    So they leave positive initiatives on the table.  This has a profound implication.

The eye rollers are the people controlling the unit and the outcome is that they drive regression to the mean.  They hold the unit in mediocrity.  This means the leader is not a leader.  The leader is a reactive manager, who does not do what is best for the unit.   Because of self-interested fear, the manager does not create a culture of social excellence.  The manager preserves the culture of the eye rollers.

This phenomenon is so real and so powerful, that in our programs, we put great emphasis on purpose and authenticity.  We tell participants to only select the practices that they really believe in.  When they get home and try to implement, they have to be so committed that when the eye rollers go to work, the committed leader blows them away in a positive fashion.

We once had a young man who did exactly this.  When he suggested an initiative, someone in the group actually responded, “Oh did you learn that at the university?”

He said it immediately created a knot in his stomach.  Then he remembered the preparation we did.  He looked the person in the eye and said, “Yes I did learn it at the university, but it does not matter where I learned it, because I am willing to try anything that will make the unit better, anything that will allow me to serve you more fully as a leader and create a unified and effective team.”

There was a stunned silence.  People nodded.  No eyes rolled.  The young man had done something that few people ever do.  He transcended negative peer pressure and pulled the team towards excellence.

He said he would never forget the moment.  I suspect his people also will long remember that moment.  My desire is to have every manager understand how they are controlled by negative peer pressure.  My desire is for every manager to choose to face negative peer pressure with purpose and integrity.



  • Have you ever encountered an eye roller?
  • What function is served by the eye rollers in your organization?
  • Who knows how to lead a team through negative peer pressure, and what can you learn from that leader?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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