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Boss is wrong when he thinks boss is always right

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)
Tim Mcguire The Spokesman-Review

In a space of 24 hours last month I listened to a smart executive complain about how his bosses view any disagreement on tactics, strategies or budgets as disloyal. Then, I read a crucial passage in the controversial new book “Against All Enemies” by Richard A. Clarke (Free Press, 2004).

Clarke described a former FBI agent who was killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center this way: “John was John O’Neill, my closest friend in the bureau and a man determined to destroy al Qaeda until the bureau had driven him out because he was too obsessed with al Qaeda and didn’t mind breaking crockery in his drive to get Usama (sic) bin Laden. O’Neill did not fit the narrow little mold that Director Louis Freeh wanted for his agents. He was too aggressive, thought outside the box.”

From government, to major corporations, to small businesses, “the boss is always right” mentality endangers us all. Executives and employees too often act as if the title of CEO or COO has conferred divine wisdom and insight upon the leaders. Genuinely inspired executives know how to utilize the talents of others — even those who disagree, challenge and think differently. Bill George, in his book “Authentic Leadership,” writes, “It is a real danger sign when leaders only appoint people with whom they feel comfortable.”

And yet so many executives relentlessly attempt to stomp out all dissent and rid the company of people who dare to speak out and make them uncomfortable.

Certainly, the way employees speak out and speak up is essential to maintaining an effective working environment, but self-interested troublemakers need to be dealt with firmly. As in everything else in the workplace, respect must be a two-way street. Employees must respect bosses and bosses must respect the employees and their ideas. So why don’t they? I think there are at least five key reasons bosses don’t listen well:

• Arrogance. Alan G. Robinson and Dean M. Schroeder describe this in their book, “Ideas Are Free: How the Idea Revolution is Liberating People and Transforming Organizations” (Berrett-Koehler, 2004), as a “lack of managerial humility.” They say managers are better educated, hold higher rank and get paid better. They wear the suits and they start to believe their press. Executive insecurity plays a role, too.

• Disconnection and disdain. Executives too often develop memory problems and forget where they come from. They develop a disdain for their employees and relish their perceived superiority. These executives start to believe employees are liabilities and not their most important assets.

• Mission confusion. Money and the bottom line overwhelm the stated mission of the company. If employees believe that serving the public or developing innovative new products to help society is the top goal, and the executives focus obsessively on maximizing quarterly profit, dissonance is bound to result. The mission and goals must be clear, honest and authentic.

• Stakeholder confusion. A lot of companies spout bromides such as “Customer service is the most important thing we do,” but some don’t really mean it. Pleasing the CEO or the board of directors or the stockholders may, in fact, be preeminent. Again, in that case, top executives are bound to hear ideas they don’t like.

• It’s easier. “My way or the highway” is an easier way to manage. It is much less complicated to quell dissent than it is to think about a new world that could be created by employee opinions and ideas.

If we expect to create workplaces that allow employees and the company to reach full potential, bosses at all levels need to lose their arrogance and start listening.

Tip for your search: The next time you resent a suggestion or criticism at work, slow down your defensive reactions. Automatically assume the criticism is coming from someone who cares deeply about the organization. Try to understand the motivation behind the criticism and or suggestion. And, most important, honestly consider the possibility that you are wrong.

Resource for your search: “Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value” by Bill George, (Josey-Bass, 2003)

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