Learning…the Hard Way

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Learning…the Hard Way

Category : 2019

Whoever said experience is the best teacher should have paid more attention to the curriculum. Life often gives the test first and the lesson later. Some lessons from experience should be obvious enough to not require taking the test for yourself. Lessons like . . .

  • You should pay attention during the Segway tour orientation.
  • Whatever comes after, “I dare you,” probably isn’t worth trying.
  • Flammable means it’s flammable.
  • You won’t always remember where you parked at the airport.
  • A private message on social media is never private.

A professional career has a curriculum of its own. Some valuable lessons are learned best by experience. A few principles every professional needs to discover are acquired less painfully by observation than by participation. The list below is a valuable reminder that duplicity knows no limits and even at executive levels these dynamics can be present.

An open door should not be confused with an open mind.

Many companies and their leaders promote an open door policy. Executives symbolically keep their office doors open. Private offices are built with glass walls. Some leaders symbolically move their desks into the middle of the cube farm to demonstrate availability and openness. But in some organizations, employees quickly discover proximity should not be confused with transparency-or even interest. While open door policies promote communication up, down, and across the company, the willingness of leaders to receive the information that is shared, may not keep pace with the policy.

In 2016, Professors at Pepperdine University[1] created an assessment to measure what they called intellectual humility-a key factor in developing open-mindedness. The four traits selected for measurement were-

  • Having respect for other viewpoints.
  • Not being intellectually overconfident.
  • Separating one’s ego from one’s intellect.
  • Willingness to revise one’s own viewpoint.

This list is a good lodestar for a leader wanting to ensure there is an open mind inside the open door.

Feedback that is requested may not be wanted.

Film producer and founder of Paramount Pictures, Sam Goldwyn said, “I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their job.” More than one idealistic leader has learned the hard way that a request for feedback is not always an invitation to offer it. When someone says, “Take a look at this and let me know what you think,” ask what kind of input is wanted before offering a response. Otherwise, you may encounter that uncomfortable moment when you discover the request for feedback is like a Midwesterner inviting you on their porch to visit. The first invitation is being polite. The second invitation means you should sit.

People saying they agree does not mean they agree.

It happens in team meetings and conference rooms dozens of times a day. People say they agree with a decision, but what happens by text and email after people return to their desks is anything but agreement. Group chats and texting are the water cooler of the 21st century.

Psychologists have a name for what looks like agreement but is really something else. The indirect resistance and the avoidance of direct confrontation is called passive aggressive behavior. Procrastination, ignoring emails, withholding information, and avoiding responsibility or accountability are reliable indicators that the “Yes” you heard in the meeting isn’t being matched with action.

Airport control towers and pilots communicate in a way that would benefit teams in corporate environments. Whatever direction the control tower gives, the pilot must repeat it verbatim. There is no confusion. Perhaps simply asking, “What did we all just agree to?” will help expose the tacit agreement that has little connection to what people do after the meeting.

A team player without a viewpoint is a minion.

Those squishy yellow creatures that talk gibberish and bring comedic relief to Despicable Me and Minions should not be confused with their corporate namesake. In a movie, Bob, Kevin, and Stuart are adorable because creator Pierre Coffin created them to be silly and short on proactive thinking. In business, their counterparts are unintentionally damaging.

The most valuable contribution a leader brings to a discussion is a personal viewpoint and a perspective. To hold back in a discussion or to defer when your viewpoint is counter to the dominant opinion robs colleagues and the organization of the contributions and benefit that only you bring. Other people can assess the same information, but none can evaluate data from the vantage point you bring. In many organizations, raising a dissenting voice or pausing to ask what could go wrong, quickly gets you labeled a not being a “team player.” History is full of tragic events that followed someone not holding to a counterpoint when the rest if the crowd ran in another direction.

The voice of reason is not the discourse of a hardened skeptic or professional cynic. There is a difference between the mantra “we tried that before and it will never work” and the desire to identify what could get in the way of success and eliminating it before a plan is executed.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wisely reminded us, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” Your time on the corporate gridiron will be marked by plenty of fumbles and mistakes. Trying to avoid making any will keep you on the sideline without any chance of scoring a touchdown. But you don’t need to get hit with every tackle to be a good player. Watch others and learn from them without getting the wind knocked out of you.