Friday, 1 June 2012

Ego Deafness

The crushing impact of ego on organisational effectiveness has been considered by many authors and management philosophers. But sometimes insight can come from unexpected sources.

In season 5, episode 18, of Hill Street Blues, all the department's precinct captains and their superior are brought together for an "encounter group" led by a therapist. In this setting they get to air their grievances and take a fresh look at themselves.

Although fiction, the writers show great insight into the attitudes of ego driven senior managers and the impact this has on subordinates, and the wider organisation. This excerpt is an allegory every organisational leader or manager can learn from.


An Ego Allegory
Fletcher: So, there I was, thinking I'd get a beating. Well, I had a black eye. Maybe I was more scared she'd start thrashing me too, for going to that playground. But the thing Mom told me that day stayed with me all my life. Fletcher - it's not the size of the dog in the fight it's the size of the fight in the dog.

Joe: Please!

Fletcher: The men know that, that I'm a battler, in my struggles for their welfare. I may ruffle a few feathers along the way, I'm not always the perfect gentleman. But dammit -- when you've got Daniels in your corner you've got him for all fifteen rounds.

Joe: Excuse me.

Fletcher: Where are you going?

Joe: It's killing me. I can't stand it any more.

Fletcher: You got something you want to tell me Joe Daley?

Joe: Yeah. You're here talking all the time about how the men respect you, they know you're on their side. You haven't the faintest idea what these cops think.

Fletcher: Suppose you tell me.

Another Precinct Captain: They think, all you're concerned about is your image. You couldn't care less about them.

Fletcher: That's not fair.

Joe: And you were gonna clean things up the department still has more rat holes than the North Street Bridge.

Fletcher: I've done everything in my power to eradicate corruption.

Frank: No you haven't chief. When push came to shove it was what Joe said, you were more concerned with the department's image than with its honesty.

Fletcher: Et tu Frank?

Joe: Stan Mizell, Tony Marino, Gerry Fukes, Joe Keenan's still getting the paycheck.

Fletcher: Who else? Huh? Who else hates my guts?

Joe: This... I can't eat this. Where's the milk I asked for?

Therapist: Ulcer, Joe?

Joe: You know when I got it? When [Fletcher] took over the department.

Therapist: Fletcher! How do you feel right now?

Fletcher: Augh! In a day of rancid stupidities that question takes the cake.

Therapist: How do you feel?

Fletcher: Like I'm being savaged by a pack of dogs.

Joe: There you go. That's what he thinks of us.

Fletcher: Why don't you check your watch Joe? Not every man has the privilege to know to the exact second when his career ended.

Therapist: You're out of line.

Joe: Hey! My career ended the day [Fletcher] took over the department.

Fletcher: Fair enough. No. That's fair. Cause you know why Mike? I got a snoop detector for mediocrity. He was finished when I came in.

Joe: And don't think I didn't know it. And don't think that it didn't hurt that I worked that way. So what are you going to do now Fletch? Are you going to bury me in a desk somewhere? So what! I got 18 years in. Two more years and I'm out from under.

Fletcher: How is cooping in a desk going to be any different from how you've run "The Ferry", huh Joe? Guy's got more dead wood in his squad room than any other three captains. Joe's idea of a personnel decision is hoping the man gets a back problem.

Therapist: Fletcher. If you could let go of your anger for just a minute, I think you'd hear Joe trying to tell you something very important. He's telling you that he's a non-functioning cop. He's marking his time with no commitment to the future. No hope...

Fletcher: Oh you're breaking my heart!

Frank: Listen to what's being said.

Therapist: Now I can't judge the validity of his allegations, but I can validate that man's pain. And the way he shut himself down just to survive. And that hurts everybody. That hurts you. That hurts Joe. But most of all it hurts the department. Because Joe's frustrations just can't be his. They're symptomatic of something larger. And it ought to be looked at. With some care. By every one of you here.
Are you a Fletcher? Leading with what you think is fight and energy, but what is actually just ego and pushing people around?

Are you a Joe? Worn down by the ego of seniors, marking time, waiting for things to get better, with no hope, but finally lashing back when you have had enough?

Or, are you one of the others? Silently putting up, not rocking the boat, until you eventually turn into a Joe or a Fletcher?

"Listen to what's being said"

Aside from the personal pain, the crushed creativity and motivation, the lack of hope, being suffered by individuals in these situations, there is a big organisational problem that "hurts everybody". Again from the Therapist:
Therapist: Now I can't judge the validity of his allegations, but I can validate that man's pain. And the way he shut himself down just to survive. And that hurts everybody. That hurts you. That hurts Joe. But most of all it hurts the department. Because Joe's frustrations just can't be his. They're symptomatic of something larger. And it ought to be looked at. With some care. By every one of you here.
If the culture of your leadership, or your organisation, is pushing workers into shut down and "marking time", you have to know you are losing the best these workers have to offer. They no longer have a "commitment to the future" of your organisation. They are finding their satisfactions off the job. They are looking for alternative employers. You are losing your staff first in heart and mind, and then in body.

If you think that more ego (the cause of the problem) is actually going to be the solution, by increasing control, and scrutiny, and appraisals that punish, all you will do is accelerate the loss and the decline.
Frank: Listen to what's being said.
What does this mean? Usually an egotistical management style is highly defensive of negative feedback. Self image (ego) is primary, and so it is defended most vigorously. That means you can't take criticism. You would rather silence the critic, than understand the problem. Your ego makes you deaf.

"Joe's frustrations just can't be his"


Like the other captains, most of your staff will silently watch the Joe's have their say and then quit their jobs in frustration, while deep down thinking and feeling exactly as Joe did.
 Therapist: ...Because Joe's frustrations just can't be his.
You may count yourself glad to have lost a vocal, frustrated, subordinate, mistakenly thinking that the problem was the critical subordinate. Yet you remain with a department full of identical individuals, "because Joe's frustrations just can't be his", but who are simply less vocal. Your ego makes you deaf.

Listen and lead
Therapist: They're symptomatic of something larger. And it ought to be looked at. With some care. By every one of you here.
This requires an honest listen to the problems, and causes of problems, in your organisation, through the hearing aid of conscience, not the earwax of ego.


It's nothing that hasn't been said before. The solution is conscience, honesty, integrity, vision, passion, discipline, and personal responsibility. If you are a leader... develop these attributes in yourself, before you expect them in your subordinates. Leaders lead, they don't just point, anyone can talk the talk, you need to walk the walk.

As you do this, keep listening. It will be worth it, because as ego reduces and conscience increases you will find that people tell you more, and that you will be more ready to understand how what they tell you matters to your organisation. 

And that will only improve your leadership.




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