You flunked this one, boss!

Brankica Ljamić, PhD

Companies cannot grow and develop without personal and professional development of those who lead them.

After nearly two terms of office and undergraduate degrees completed at long last, the boys started working as managers in their father’s corporation. Exuberant and wanting to prove themselves, they show an understanding of their responsibilities from day one: to have an opinion (usually negative) on any question that gets raised, and to express it with a devil-may-care attitude, to assume that theirs is the final word on any matter and expect it to be acted upon immediately, to make suggestions that the staff had abandoned years ago as they were impractical, to insist on innovations such as “the colour of the accounting register must match the company logo”, and the like.

A former associate, currently a vibrant fiancée, a likely prospect for the second (or third, depending how you count it) wife of the founder, with a green light from him, decides to bring order back to the collective, a collective that is in fact already doing well. The way she sees it, the order should involve keeping track of when employees arrive and when they leave, reviewing phone calls, reading e-mails, afternoon calls to employees with urgent requests, etc. All with a deep sigh and a gaze full of disbelief (“what a den of thieves this is!”) for the “ungrateful” individuals who, in times like these, nevertheless get paychecks on time every time.

It was assumed that both brothers would contribute equally to the business they inherited from their parents. It didn’t turn out that way exactly, mainly because each had his own ideas about what his activity meant for the company, having never had a straightforward talk between them about a strategy for realizing their goals. So now they were calling associates independently of one another with incompatible requests, and making offers to clients that were worlds apart. In daily practice they were not getting the information that mattered on time, and, when projects missed deadlines, they were pointing fingers at staff members. And both were certain all along that they were working very hard. In actuality, one was cutting corners at every turn, not bothering to consider his duties and responsibilities too much. He acted like this because he didn’t like the work he had to do only because he was a member of this family. If it were up to him, he would have done something completely different, so it was his brother really who was the lucky one in the whole deal.

These are some current examples. What they have in common is the owners’ feeling it’s the associates that are in need of training for better communication because they don’t seem to have the capacity to understand correctly what’s being said to them.

Rather than belabour the nature of the fallacy behind such conclusions, let me go over a few simple truths.

  • Communication is a busy two-way street where traffic quality is the responsibility of the party who initiates it. Among other things, it involves them asking themselves “what kind of a message must I be sending if I keep getting responses I don’t like?”
  • If an utterance does not receive a desired response, what we have on our hands then is a misunderstanding: e.g. the other party might not be telling us exactly what they think about the matter we brought up. The possible reasons why that might be the case are legion.
  • One possible reason why our interlocutors are not telling us, or we fail to recognize what their demeanor is telling us, is that we are not asking for suggestions directly, or else are too critical of suggestions they put forward.
  • When we insist that “we know better” or that “this is the way it has to be”, we are encouraging people to tune out. When their ideas are being ignored, ridiculed, or brushed aside, what reason have they to continue the effort? Why would anyone want to put in the effort if their knowhow and work experience – regarding priorities, procedures, options – have no weight? Who enjoys being criticized? And even more importantly – criticized by whom?
  • Companies cannot grow and develop without personal and professional development of those who lead them. This goes for owners as well. Them especially.
  • The first lesson they need to learn regarding their responsibilities as owners is that family roles do not translate well into business roles. Each part of the job ought to be done by the person that knows how to do it best. The real authority comes from one’s knowledge and the example one sets; heritage alone is not enough.

Otherwise, the verdict will be – you flunked this one, boss.

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