I worked with two executives that I came to refer to as “the velociraptors”. Yes, the appellation refers to reptilian creatures from the Steven Spielberg movie Jurassic Park. The pair had the characteristic single-minded focus on their own wellbeing, an unwillingness to compromise and a willingness to do whatever it took to achieve their goals. As in the movie, it made for a duo that were frighteningly effective at what they were made to do, but left a path of destruction that from my point of view wasn’t worth the cost of having them around.
This pair (the executives, not the reptiles) was a pathological example of people who don’t treat each other with respect and have no ability to interact in a constructive and generally civil manner. And, they did have an effect. They drove some impressive sales, but the company, as a whole, was worse off for it. They demoralized the product development team and (caused many good contributors to leave) drove outcomes that helped (them and) the company in the short term, but had significant negative long-term implications.
And, the impact was multiplicative. They were self-centered in their objectives which they effectively imposed on the company, but they amplified the negative affects by the brutal way they interacted with the staff to communicate their needs.
I am sure that you also have worked with colleagues whose behavior caused pain and whose contribution was less than productive, if less, hopefully less impactful than my colleagues described above. There are several attributes that clearly identify this kind of critter:
- A lack of empathy. It is clear to me that anyone who consistently treats people poorly can not understand or appreciate their effect on other people’s feelings and the consequences (whether in terms of performance, or merely deciding to leave) of their actions;
- A certain very special kind of self-centeredness. These folks believe that the world (whose scope is clearly and narrowly defined by them) revolves around their wants and well-being;
- A view that the world is defined by black (what they think is right) and white (everything else). This lack of an ability to see nuance, i.e. the grey areas, makes it impossible for them to compromise; and
- A single-minded focus, on what they think is important. This permits them to target narrowly defined objectives and perform (within those boundaries) like champs.
These character traits mix into a potent stew that makes it very difficult to collaborate and makes it impossible to build a high performing team. This doesn’t mean that velociraptors (whether they be prime examples like my former colleagues or less well-defined epitomes) can’t “succeed”, because their single-mindedness allows them to define the playing field, and simultaneously define the metrics against which they are measured.
And, they aided and abetted (sometime strategically and deliberately, sometimes not) by superiors who admire and appreciate the single-minded focus and results (sometimes very narrowly focused) that follow. These results can be short term sales results at the expense of the long-term wellbeing of customers, employees and ultimately shareholders. Or, they can be represented by short term profitability at the expense of the company’s long-term ability to compete. And, that happens when you take revenue and move it to the bottom line instead of investing in future products and services.
Please don’t misinterpret what I have said to suggest that colleagues should not participate in vigorous and even passionate discussions about issues that affect their customers, their employees and their shareholders. A short story. Early in my career, I participated in the development of a computer system to track alumni and donors to what was then called the University of Chicago GSB (now Booth). We held weekly design meetings at a conference table in the Computing Services office suite. At the end of one of these meetings, one of the other attendees and I agreed to go out for a drink. One of the other staff members who had been observing our meetings over several months pulled me aside and asked me why I was going out for a drink with this other team member since we didn’t seem (based on the volume and tone of the conversations) to like each other.
Each of us had definite ideas about how the system should be designed. We were both determined that the system that grew out of our efforts would be exceptional in every way. And, we didn’t shy away from conflict when our ideas diverged. But, we followed the following rules:
- Be prepared. Come into the conversation with a good understanding of what we were looking for. Be able to clearly and concisely articulate you wanted. And, most importantly, make sure that you had the facts to support your point of view. Good analysis comes from good data and the application of good analytic skills. And, good analysis supported by good data leads to good outcomes.
Being repetitively redundant, being prepared requires not only the facts, but having the skills required to organize the facts and examine the situation but also patience and deliberate nature to work collaboratively which leads (more often than not) to the right decisions;
- Use your words. Collaboration requires that the parties are able to exchange ideas. And, that can only be done through good communication. Good communication requires an ability to clearly articulate your point of view and do so in a way that encourages the other parties to listen;
- Be a good listener. A very smart man (Peter Hawkins) once told me that one can not both listen and formulate a response at the same time. A good listener concentrates, first on what is being said and what it means, and only then can any next steps (whether that be to agree or disagree) be taken.
Active listening (learning it really changed my life) is a real skill, taking the time to learn it is well worth the effort. It, importantly, requires the listener to identify (if not agree) with the speaker’s point of view, i.e. be empathetic. Peter Hawkins and his colleagues are the best I have ever run into at teaching the skills associated with active listening;
- Be passionate. Civil discourse does not mean that you can’t be expressive— including occasionally raising one’s voice. Good outcomes from collaboration requires that the team be diverse, willing to bring different ideas to the table, test the ideas (through discussion which sometimes might not be differentiable from arguing😊) and agree on the best course of action based on the facts and circumstances;
- Leave personalities at the door. Good discussions are about the goals, objectives, facts and best way to get to the optimal outcome. Personalities have no place in these discussions;
- Agree (and mean it) that everyone is participating for the same reason, to develop the best outcome(s) possible. This takes personal motivations out of the picture; and
- And finally, know when to compromise. This doesn’t mean that one should give up on positions that are clearly important, but no one can have everything their way. And, there are very few positions that are immutable.
I am always happy if I can adhere to 5 out of 7 of these rules on any given day. My most successful and creative endeavors have been the ones that were informed by these rules.
Finally, and while I think this is obvious, these rules don’t just apply to business. They apply to politics, our personal lives and our broader dealings with our communities. I find it disturbing that so few people know these rules and many who do, choose not to abide by them. At the same time, I am heartened that some universities, including my alma mater have decided to more actively help their students understand these rules (not exactly as I have stated them above) and are encouraging them to practice the art of using them on campus.
Copyright 2017 Howard Niden
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