148 - Head without heart is a logic bully

22-01-2024

leadership and org culture

The boss, a marketing director, has been pulled into an urgent one-on-one by his brand manager. The boss’s day is already packed but he’s made an exception for her.


Brand Manager: Finance told me our budget has been slashed again.


Boss: Yup.


BM: They said we have to cut out a couple of positions.


Boss: Yes. I’ll help you order all open positions by priority. Then you only have to follow that order.


BM: But this is the twelfth time my budget has been slashed this year.


Boss: That’s why I’m showing you how to be organized in planning. That way, we’re prepared for anything.


BM: But our targets remain—


Boss: I know this is your first time handling multiple brands and everything that comes along with it. I will help you. Do not worry.

BM: Okay.


**The need to make good arguments starts early **

I’m thirteen. I enter myself into a competitive debate. It’s middle school. It’s all the middle grades, a congregation of teens clocking in the hundreds who are in the audience, along with a handful of teachers who make the panel. Any slip up, any snafu on the occasions brings with it the risk of being regurgitated to me a hundred times over at the school canteen or at the morning assembly.

The format is simple: each participant either argues for or against the chosen topic for debate. I don’t remember the topic, certainly nothing of what I said in my minutes (three?) before the gathering. All I remember was the cover of the book of short stories I won as the second prize. And the stories in the book.

I’m twenty-two, in my final (senior) undergrad year. I’m doing mock group discussions as part of my preparation for the final round of hoops for admission into the management program into the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIM-B). Of a couple of hundred thousands who had sat for the Common Admission Test in November the previous year, a few thousand have made it to February. This residue has received invites for group discussions and personal interviews from one or more of the six national IIMs. I’m a speck in this residue.

I’ve no memory of the topic or of what I said. All I remember after the practice group discussion was the assessor applauding me for the passion with which I made my argument.

Given my history, you, dear reader, may be excused for believing that the boss in the opening of the piece is me. I probably was that archetype. It’s only that my memory is a sieve—and that corporate politesse means that often how we make people we speak with feel isn’t available to us—for which I cannot furnish any more details.

But you would have guessed the theme of these vignettes, personal or made up, that I have shared thus far.

The world of tests and competitions rewards us for talking. The world of working with real people and their real feelings to create value for society—the real world—cries for better listening.

The world of tests and competitions rewards us for being a logic bully. The real world hates those who are hell bent on shoving one good argument after another down our throat.

Perhaps not hate. But the real world doesn’t care for those who try to win heads without winning hearts. Logic bullies, especially when occupying positions of higher social rank, can ride roughshod but that peace is short-lived. Meaningful change has to win hearts before, no matter how sound a premise it is based on, it can win heads.


Once upon a time, a boss met with his report…

I made up the exchange between the boss (Marketing Director) and his report (Brand Manager) for a recent session I did for emerging leaders. In that session, I walked them through the subtext of that exchange. I’ll write that out here. In italics are the thoughts and feelings of the Brand Manager.

The boss, a marketing director, has been pulled into an urgent meeting by his brand manager. The boss’s day is already packed but he’s made an exception for her.


Brand Manager: Finance told me our budget has been slashed again. (Did you know about this?)


Boss: Yup. (Oh, so you knew about this? What else do you know then that you aren’t telling me?)


BM: They said we have to cut out a couple of positions. (I’ll just stick to what I know.)


Boss: Yes. I’ll help you order all open positions by priority. Then you only have to follow that order. (D’uh!)


BM: But this is the twelfth time my budget has been slashed this year. (Can we please address the elephant in the room?)


Boss: That’s why I’m showing you how to be organized in planning. That way, we’re prepared for anything. (Thanks for the lecture in planning that I didn’t sign up for.)


BM: But our targets remain— (_Am I hallucinating here? Do you not see what is ridiculous here?) _


Boss: I know this is your first time handling multiple brands and everything that comes along with it. I will help you. Do not worry. (What do you mean the first time? And how can I not worry? It’s my budget that’s being cut. Does that mean the management doesn’t see my job as important?)

BM: Okay. (Seems like you’re telling me all this is normal. Well, then, I wonder what else is normal that no one’s telling me about.)

So the boss doesn’t read the room well. Let’s see it from his perspective. Maybe the boss knows that the downsizing by two open positions is an improvement on four, which is what was earlier planned by management. And in fact, he had to pull all kinds of strings and have a word with his boss, the CMO, to reach this middle ground. The problem, as the CMO explained to the Marketing Director, is that all functions have been affected by the latest round of cost-cutting. None of this is helped by the fact that the company’s cash crunch seems to coincide with the prolonged funding winter in the market. Before the CMO jumped into her next meeting, she mentioned to the Marketing Director that they needed to score early wins to persuade management and reassured him that she knew how to do that from past experiences and would help him the same.

What the CMO believes but did not share with the Marketing Director for fear that it may be misunderstood is that management sees marketing as a cost center, and not a revenue center, and that is the bleeding heart of the problem.

And much like the CMO, the Marketing Director has chosen to keep some information to himself, betting on the possibility that his report, the Brand Manager, would likely be more confused than clarified by it. The Brand Manager needs to know only so far as that her boss will be at hand to help her redo the budget and redo her priorities.

Is it then the nature of the game—that information travels by a need-to-know basis? Your paycheck decides how much of the context you’re exposed to? That’s it, end of story?

A lot of us may have been given this lesson to learn. It may have been suggested to us that this is the only lesson there is to take home from any sequence of events similar to the one described here.

I’m going to come at it from the other side and share with you what I see.


Listening to the said and the unsaid

There are at least two ways to consider the exchange between the boss and the report.

One is the verbalized exchange that revolves around the head needs of the Brand Manager. In this explicit exchange, the boss tries to fix things up for the report by offering solutions: I’ll help you reprioritize your open positions; I’ll help you relook at your priorities; and so on. The boss plays the role of a logical problem solver.

The other way to read the exchange is to pay attention to the non-verbalized internal chatter that revolves around the heart needs of the Brand Manager. What is the Brand Manager feeling as she listens to her boss’s attempts to help her? What emotions does she experience? Are they acknowledged?

“The most effective verbal exchanges are those that integrate both the social and cognitive needs of the person seeking support,” writes experimental psychologist Ethan Kross in his book Chatter. He goes on to explain:

The interlocutor ideally acknowledges the person’s feelings and reflections, but then helps her put the situation in perspective. The advantage of such approaches is that you’re able to make people who are upset feel validated and connected, yet you can then pivot to providing them with the kind of big-picture advice that you, as someone who is not immersed in their chatter, are uniquely equipped to provide.

In the shared exchange above, instead of starting off with addressing the emotional needs and then switching, after bringing about some calm, to offer solutions, the boss jumps straight into problem-solving mode. As a source of emotional acknowledgment, the boss goes AWOL.

If you’ve ever noticed professional athletes speaking to the media right after a crushing loss, you would’ve noticed that they tend to stick to staple responses during such times. It is a professional hazard for them to have to front up to the media when emotions are still raw, so a coping mechanism they lean on is offering rehearsed responses devoid of any real feeling.

You don’t want your reports to behave that way. You want them to open up. In return, they want you to acknowledge their feelings and validate—not necessarily agree, but validate—what they’re experiencing. By trying first to understand, you earn the right to be understood when you say your piece.


Are you playing the hero?

Let’s revisit the lesson of sharing information on a need-to-know basis. Taking that lesson to heart means, however unwittingly, creating a relationship of co-dependence. Co-dependence, you ask? How are you, the boss, dependent on your report?

When you selectively share information with your report, you make it harder for them to solve their problems. You insert yourself into the solution because all roads to an escape now go through you. Without you there’s no way out. Only you see the big picture and hence only you can make all the little pieces fit. So, your report relies on your vision to show her the path ahead. She needs you for that. So far so good.

But without a helpless report, who can you pull out from a raging fire? How do you show value as a superhero? You need her problems so that you can fix them. It is only her narrow perspective and limited experience that shines light on your breadth of perspective and experience. In the classic way of dysfunctional relationships, as Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle shows, you take on the role of a Hero. Every hero needs a victim to save, and that archetype becomes your hapless report.

It is to your benefit to keep this relationship going this way by withholding from your report and disempowering her from taking charge. She never learns to fish; she only knows to wait for the fish to be given to her. In the described exchange, it is unlikely that the report will keep coming back to her boss for too long. At some point, sooner than later, she’s going to figure out she’s not gonna solve the mystery of what really goes on in her organization so it’s better to simply dump her problems on her boss and expect her boss to find a way for her. Her boss, in turn, will keep believing his own narrative that as the boss he’s best placed to fix things up. At some point, sooner than later, because the problems will keep growing and he’ll be constantly overwhelmed with them, he’ll burn himself out.

Even the best Heroes have a shelf life.


The way out

Effective communication means both speaking and listening. We tend to do disproportionately well at one of the two, and that one, more often than not, is the talking bit. For those who grew up winning debates by talking, listening can feel hard, almost out of character. They measure their worth by how much value they can add with their heads. Their heads, like that of Officer Spock in Star Trek, is on overdrive. The Brand Manager in our earlier scenario needed a dose of Captain Kirk, the other _Star Trek _character who is all heart.

The advice to listen better, though well-intentioned, can lead to a slippery slope. Especially initially. As someone in my session for emerging leaders asked: Some need handling with kid gloves. They take away a lot of energy. What to do with them? (Someone also mentioned that they found the number of budget revisions in the described situation to be unrealistic. I assured the skeptic that the number twelve was indeed a lot smaller than the number seventeen, which is how many times a friend had to redo his budget one unfortunate year, and that the truth in this case was indeed stranger than fiction.)

As a younger manager, I used to end up doling out a lot of weekly hours to being sensitive. I sometimes got the balance between head and heart wrong, trapped in the role of a Friday evening friend who’s at the receiving end of a venting session. I got better at that; I learned to set boundaries. I figured out who was prone to letting out steam a little more. It wasn’t as hard as you may imagine.

It soon became clear that what ate up hours initially gave me back many times more down the road. Here’s Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People talking more about the long-term benefits of listening:

_Empathetic listening takes time but it doesn’t take anywhere near as much time as it takes to back up and correct misunderstandings when you’re already miles down the road, to redo, to live with unexpressed and unresolved problems, to deal with the results of not giving people psychological air. _

Fixing up things with good advice is good advice when it is paired with and preceded by trying first to understand and acknowledging the other person’s emotions. Arguing passionately, like I did in those middle school debates and mock group discussions, doesn’t help to see the world from another pair of eyes. It only reinforces our own. It traps us in our heads and stops us from seeing what’s in others’ hearts. And that is our loss.

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