Most of the organizations that I’ve been in have a culture that values the perception of perfection even in the face of evidence that we’re not perfect and no one else is either. Understanding this seems obvious – however, too many organizations unconsciously ignore this fundamental truth. Let’s take a quick look at what organizations look like – beyond the tall buildings, fancy offices, and expensive chairs. How do we as humans relate to each other? How is it that we truly connect with our peers, managers, and subordinates?
To be successful in a corporate environment, you must learn some key skills, not the least of which is the art of managing up. While in some minds, this is as simple as making sure that your boss likes you, it’s slightly more nuanced than that. Certainly, having a friendly relationship with your manager is important – after all, no one wants to have hostile relations with anyone, much less their boss. However, you must also make sure your manager believes that you can do the job that you’re currently in, whether that’s a manufacturing manager, a digital marketing specialist, or a fry cooker.
If you’re particularly skilled at managing up, you’ll create the impression not just of a relationship with your manager, but that you want to make your manager look good. While your relationship and your skills and capabilities matter, they don’t matter as much as the manager looking good to their manager.
Together, these expectations mean that you must hide your weaknesses from your manager so they don’t discover that you don’t really know how to do your job. (Here’s a secret: none of us really know how to do our jobs completely – or we’re in the wrong job.)
Much has been written about how to manage your subordinates. There are different strategies, but most of them involve the central tenet that you, as the manager, know more than the person doing the work, and as a result, they should listen and do what you stay. In this position, you must become the all-seeing oracle at Delphi. You’re supposed to have the answers to offer up that you don’t know, or encouraging exploration could be construed as weakness.
The result is that, in the typical organization, you’ve got to hide your weakness from your subordinates by claiming that the problem is difficult, and you want to review all of the information or reflecting the problem back on them, so they can “grow,” all the while silently realizing that you don’t have the answers either.
Managing peer relationships with no authority-power gradient is just as complex. The folks that you’re working for will be the very ones that you’ll be competing with for the next promotion. You certainly can’t expose your weaknesses to them, because they might take those weaknesses and use them against you at the last moment.
Without the power gradient, you can’t be sure that you can trust them. What if they decide to “air your dirty laundry” to the rest of the organization? You’d be ruined. So, the best strategy with peers is to keep things close to your chest and share your expertise with them, but never ask them for anything that might demonstrate your weakness.
The Legacy of Stack Rank
Some of this is a result of the thoughts of Fredrick Taylor, who brought out the stop watch to measure, evaluate, and stack rank employees based on their ability to drive solid metrics. Peter Drucker warned us that you’ll get what you measure. He saw how Taylor’s ideas warped the behavior of the front-line workers towards the metric to the exclusion of everything else. Kaplan and Norton tried to address the limitations by urging us to move towards balanced scorecards – where we looked for good performance on a series of metrics, not a single metric.
However, even in this world, employees were stack ranked at organizations like GE. The top performers got the best bonuses. The bottom performers were encouraged to find opportunities outside of the organization. This approach is often criticized in knowledge management and collaboration circles, because it places dramatic barriers in front of the kind of sharing to make these initiatives successful. (See Collaboration for more on how internal competition breaks collaboration.) It’s also been the bane of many managers with high-performing groups where everyone in the group is a solid performer – but one must be let go to address the structure of the stack rank system.
That’s what it looks like in most organizations. Safety is elusive. You must hide at least part of your real self to stay relatively safe in an unsafe environment. (See How to Be Yourself for more on the stress of denying yourself.) However, what would it be like to experience an environment where you can be the whole you? If your weaknesses were not just acceptable but were expected? What if the model were flipped over, so that it was the managers that served the managed? (See Servant Leadership and Heroic Leadership for more on how managers might become servants for the managed.)
When we can confront the reality that none of us are perfect and we all need to grow, we create the opportunity to be more transparent about our weaknesses, both in order to grow personally and to allow the team to cover them so they don’t get the better of us.