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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Do Managers Eat Their Young?

Saturn Devouring His Son
I’ve become a skeptic regarding the power of knowledge. 

The remarkable trait of humans that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is our capacity to accumulate knowledge.  For example, I can tell children to not touch a hot stove.  This is a piece of knowledge that I’ve never experienced but I believe it to be true so I pass that knowledge along.

This is not so for other animals.  Watch a lioness teach her cubs to hunt.  All she can do is transfer her direct knowledge to those cubs.  She can’t sit around and say, “hey, I was talking with your aunt yesterday and she thinks it’s a good idea to stay away from the horns of the water buffalo.”

So we’re blessed with a special gift that has driven the history of humanity, right?  Well maybe “not so much.”  The human race has lots of knowledge that it constantly ignores: kids do touch hot stoves; 20% of American’s smoke; and our eating habits are so atrocious that the average American is 25 pounds heavier than in 1960.

The Myth of Listening
I bring this up because of a barrage of books, articles, and blogs I see that discuss the known virtues of “listening” – almost as a panacea for all that ails organizations.  We know that the simple improvisation technique of “… yes – and” performs miracles at work.  This simple technique invites diversity into the conversation and allows ideas to emerge, bump into other ideas, and become innovations that save the world. 

You don’t have to believe me, just read authors such as Stephen Johnson and his seminal book: Where Good Ideas Come From.

Yet managers consistently behave counter to this known wisdom.  In fact, my experience tells me that most “successful” executives are bad listeners.  They know how to control and they know how to direct.  Much of their success emanates from their capability to get things done by only listening to those who are on the same narrow path.

Why is this?  Why is asking a manager to listen akin to asking a diabetic to forego dessert?

I’m not sure that I have the definitive answer; however, I recently had an insight that let me form an opinion. Here it is.

The Myth of Saturn
I was in the Museo National del Prado in Madrid.  Spain is the home of Francisco Goya so I decided to learn what I could about this famous artist.  In so doing I stumbled into his period of Black Paintings.  I was specifically struck by his rendering of Saturn Eating One of His Sons.

The mythology says that Saturn, who was the Roman god of time, would be deposed from power by one of his sons, just as Saturn deposed his father.  Saturn’s survival answer was simple; he would devour his sons as they were born.  However, through trickery one son, Jupiter, was hidden and did in fact bring Saturn his fate.

There are plenty of art experts who have interpreted this work; however, when I saw it I immediately saw organizational dynamics.  It gave me a possibility for why many managers do not listen.  Why managers don’t let go.  Why managers revel in being the smartest person in the room.  Why managers feel the compulsion to have the final word with the final answer.

I know I’m speculating but am I really that far off the mark?  Managers like to be in control.  They fear randomness and chaos.  When ideas other than their own come to the table the idea and the advocate are threats – not just to the issue at hand but to the security of the manager’s job.  The young are seen as challengers to the manager’s ESP – Ego, Status, and Power.  Survivalism trumps listening.


That’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.

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