Leave your ego at home

All of us together are collectively much smarter than any one of us individually

On a recent visit to a client, I saw something on my way in that was really stupid. It was so bad, I thought it might have been a childish prank. I couldn’t imagine anyone in the organization having had anything to do with it.

In any case, employees often enter by other entrances, and I was afraid they might not be aware of it, so I let them know as I met with them. I noticed the CEO became a little uncomfortable. One of his associates implied I was being hard, but the others jumped in and said they agreed with me.

I didn’t think much of it until a subsequent visit, when the CEO referred to the incident and said I couldn’t be treating people that way. I couldn’t understand how he could think I had mistreated anyone.

Referring back to the incident, he mentioned he had been especially annoyed when I had asked, “Who would have done such a thing?” In his mind, “the only possible answer would be an idiot.” Remember, I was still thinking it was a prank.

The next day, it finally dawned on me, he must have been the author of that prank! It had to have been his idea. I was astounded, as I had never dreamed anyone on that management team could be that stupid. Although I thought I was very tactful, I must have been inadvertently rubbing salt in an open wound.

Now, I’ve done some pretty stupid things myself, and when someone points them out to me, I get angry, but not at them. I’m grateful to them. I get mad at myself. “What was I thinking? Why didn’t I check? What’s the matter with me?”

In fact, whenever I’m running operations or a project, I tell my people, “If I ask you to do something that doesn’t seem right, please don’t do it. Tell me what’s wrong. Tell me tactfully, but tell me.”

A lot of processes are very complicated, and no one can know everything. Many directives have inadvertent side effects. They may fix one problem while they create several others. Unless managers want to hear bad news, they’ll never know. And communicating this bad news can’t be risky in any way. In fact, you want the failure to communicate it to be risky.

I’ve done troubleshooting in a number of processes and industries. I don’t have time to become an expert in what they’re doing. I have to use their knowledge, if we’re going to solve the problems in a timely fashion.

And all too often, it means telling high-level managers they have to change some of their pet policies and/or procedures. However, when you know a manager is the cause of a problem, you can phrase the remedy in a way that minimizes the chances of him or her feeling accused or even threatened. Often, finding the solution is the easy part. Selling it to them can be really tough.

I recently read an article about Elon Musk, and it claimed he was trying to get his people to tell their managers what’s wrong. Musk is the CEO of SpaceX, Tesla and Neuralink, among other things. As brilliant as he may be, he can’t possibly know everything in one of those companies, let alone all of them.

What’s great is that he seems to know this. Often, very successful people start thinking they’re so smart the rules don’t apply to them. That’s how companies like Facebook, Amazon and others get into trouble. Leaders who understand their limitations and encourage their people to do the same are well on their way to steering clear of obvious pitfalls.

What’s even better is taking it to the next level. Even if nothing is wrong, what can we do better? I know, we all think we do this, but some organizations are much better at it than others. You don’t need a formal suggestion system. Just build the right rapport with your people and actively solicit the ideas without putting anyone on the spot.

It’s incredible what we can accomplish when we don’t let our egos get in the way.

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or RonBourque3@gmail.com.