August 7, 2011
I believe it was Gandhi who once said, "Can't you people just mix in a little humility?" (I didn't actually Google that quote, but I'm pretty sure it's right.)
Point is, one of the most mystifying aspects of workplaces is they seem to render certain people incapable of believing in others and unwilling to seek advice or accept criticism. This affects both employers and employees.
Consider life in your office and how many times you've thought, "Why couldn't so-and-so have just told me what he was thinking?" or "Why doesn't so-and-so ever ask for my input?" The desire to be a part of what's going on in a workplace, to be listened to, to be treated with respect, is not an overreach. It's reasonable, and yet it's a desire that's rarely met.
I recently had a discussion along these lines with a very smart person. I know he's smart because he has written a book and is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and was previously vice chairman of the Goldman Sachs Group and didn't criticize me for wearing jeans to the interview.
His name is Robert Kaplan, and his book is called "What to Ask the Person in the Mirror." (Spoiler alert: It's not, "How'd you get so handsome?")
Kaplan's business philosophy, applicable to everyone from CEOs to new college graduates, begins with a willingness to ask questions.
"Half the time, asking the question is 90 percent of the battle," Kaplan said. "I've seen it so often where somebody comes to me and says, ‘I'm having this problem and this problem and this problem,' and I say, ‘Well, let me ask you this question.' And they say, ‘No, I've got this problem …' and they just focus on the problem and want to know how to fix it without being willing to ask the questions they need to ask to get to the core issues behind the problem."
He said people, particularly those in leadership positions, can feel isolated and unable — or at times unwilling — to seek the counsel of subordinates.
"If I was always the smartest person, maybe I'm used to being the one who gives the answers, maybe I think it's a sign of weakness to ask questions or ask for help," Kaplan said. "But leadership isn't an individual sport, it's a team sport. You're going to have to involve other people or you're going to get clobbered."
Humility. A willingness to admit — be you a boss or an eager employee — that you may not have all the answers.
"You also have to be willing to listen," Kaplan said. "When somebody tells you something you don't want to hear, rather than give them a vibe that says, ‘I don't want to hear that again,' you've got to encourage them to keep coming back. That's not an easy thing for people to do, particularly if you're extremely talented and you're not used to taking criticism."
The second piece of advice is looking inward, doing a self-analysis, which is another steep hill for many of us to climb.
"I tell people to ask themselves, ‘What are my strengths and weaknesses?'" Kaplan said.
That sounds like a cliche job-interview question, but he continued:
"Most people, if you ask them, they actually don't know. If you asked me right now, before I could answer I'd have to step back and think again because the weaknesses keep changing depending on what I'm doing. So I've got to think about it. Maybe I have to go interview five people who know me well and get some advice, just to know what my weaknesses are, to get some observations from people. I encourage young people and middle-level people and, frankly, senior people to ask, ‘What are my weaknesses?' And it means I have to be willing to go and get some advice and interview people and not be afraid to hear what they have to say. If a person knows their weaknesses, there's a very high likelihood they're going to improve."
I despise motivational babble, but to me this is an awfully good thought. Difficult to get people to achieve, yes, but consider how much better a workplace would be if everyone, yourself included, were willing to not just take constructive criticism from others, but use it. Imagine the comfort level if we weren't all afraid to nudge each other in a better direction.
Which gets to Kaplan's next point. Are you too politically correct to speak up?
"What you really want to be able to do, within reason and with proper good judgment, is feel comfortable saying, ‘I think we should be doing something different' or ‘I don't agree with this' or ‘I think we're doing the wrong thing here.' I find those are the people that tend to get promoted faster, get recognized, and they shine. But sometimes people talk themselves out of doing it."
Kaplan targets "conventional wisdom" as the primary enemy.
"Conventional wisdom is almost always wrong for you. What keeps people from focusing on strengths and weaknesses and passion and speaking up and being themselves at work? Conventional wisdom. There's constantly a network of advice you're getting through the grapevine in the company or in school among your classmates who are saying, ‘Let me tell you, it's who you know' or ‘This is just how you do things.' It's all this wacky advice. That stuff has a powerful impact on all of us. People talk you out of pursuing your passion or speaking up or being yourself. Conventional wisdom, peer pressure, parental pressure. All those things just kind of box you in."
That's not to say we should all tie-dye our work clothes and let our freak flags fly. But I can certainly think of many occasions when I've gone against my instincts because "you just don't talk to her that way" or "that just isn't done here." Decisions to go against the workplace grain must be measured, to be sure, but we should also strive for a balance between toeing the line and being true to ourselves.
I'll conclude with an admittedly odd choice of quotes from Kaplan's book. It's the dedication he wrote — I swear I read beyond that point — and it struck me as a simple and spot-on reason why we should all have the humility to consistently admit that we don't know everything.
"To my parents, who taught me to never stop asking questions, and to all those who over the generations have protected our right to do so."
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