An interesting conversation last week with a high-powered corporate type who was banging on about how he’d put one of his underlings back in his place during a strategy meeting.
“He was throwing up these ideas that were clearly not going to work,” old mate explained, taking a self-congratulatory sip of his long Macchiato. “I let him go, but after he’d had his say, I quickly put him back in his box. He was way out of his depth.”
I let the air of self-importance settle before delving a little deeper.
“So you were right and he was wrong?“ I said, letting him decide whether it was a question or a statement. He opted for “question”.
“Yep. And by the time the meeting was over, he was well aware of it, too.”
“Then what happened?” I asked.
“Well, after you were right and he was wrong, what did you resolve? What were the agreed next steps? A learning outcome?”
“There weren’t any next steps, other than this bloke realising he needs to do his research, before putting forward stupid ideas that are never going to work,” the boss explained.
By now, we could have been talking about any of a million different workplaces, where similar if not identical scenarios have played out, for decades and beyond. The boss riding roughshod over some eager beaver junior, merely looking to add value and make their mark in the business.
Then, with the flick of the ego switch, an internal battle ignites. Out come the boxing gloves. Whack. I’m right, you’re wrong.
Anyone who’s hung around the corporate world long enough would have seen it a hundred times. Probably been slugged themselves by somebody’s “need to be right”.
For the power hungry, aggressive-defensive types, a knock-out blow, delivered in front of their peers, validates their very existence – their status, their experience, their lofty salary, the size of their office, even the proximity of their car park to the lift. The really important stuff.
The problem is – beyond that, it doesn’t achieve a single thing. Just embarrassment and most probably, resentment.
Recounting the bruises that came with getting flattened a few times during my own underwhelming corporate career, I challenged Old Mate Macchiato to come up with a few alternative responses, something a little less reptilian than “I’m right, you’re wrong”.
The starting point with that exercise of course is being clear about the end game. What are you actually trying to achieve? What does success look like? And for the big voice around the table, beyond just being “right”, how can you exert influence? Where are you trying to lead your people?
Perhaps most importantly, what sort of environment do you need to create in order for them to feel motivated, and to think for themselves?
Within a New York minute, without prompting, my aggro coffee buddy had done a complete about face, quickly identifying three different longer-term objectives, all far more productive than his primal instinct to look good and feel important.
By the way, in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with that very human urge. We all enjoy validation at some level, but in a leadership sense “being right” is rarely enough.
Instead of right, think righteous. Aim for win-win, instead of win lose. At a strategic level, involve and solve, rather than tell and sell. Inquiry as distinct from advocacy.
The two different approaches are destined to deliver very different outcomes.
Captain Corporate was so impressed with his immediate realisation, he vowed to take the same thought process home and apply it to discussions with his other half.
I’m sure we all wish him the very best with those endeavours.
I’ll keep you abreast of any significant developments.
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