A CEO, a Compromise, and a Lemon-Meringue Pie

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Through our lives, many of us have encountered people who are ego-driven. It can be a hard road to travel if that person is your co-worker or boss, because most egotists don’t understand or excel at the art of compromise. However, before you begin to point fingers at that co-worker, boss (or partner), you might want to read about Sheila R., the CEO/owner of a successful tech company you met in our last Newsletter issue to see if you too, can recognize the egotist in your behaviour.

A quick re-cap:
From business to sports, Sheila excels at just about everything, so she is puzzled about why her company suffers from high staff turn-over. Given the better-than-average salaries and benefits (including on-site day-care), it took some digging to discover that the reason people are leaving is because Sheila infringes. If there’s a problem, she jumps in with a solution. And because she’s such a brilliant engineer, marketer, and even coder, she turns a blind eye and deaf ear to anything a staffer might say. Her way is the right way; the only way.

If she knew she could create stronger, more competent, loyal staff by sitting back and letting them bounce ideas off her without her riding rough-shod over them or brushing them aside… she might do it.  But she views that kind of behaviour as weak and compromising… in the worst sense of the word. She understands the compromise – the give-and-take – the negotiation – that’s required when a contract is being drawn up, but not when it comes to letting her people find their own solutions and offer their own suggestions. After all, if you’re so good at everything, why listen to others who perhaps are not?

New Developments:
We asked Sheila to step back… to not interfere… to let people do the jobs they were hired for and to record, on a daily basis, that process to identify her behaviour patterns and hopefully, the belief(s) fueling the impulse to take over. (Because ‘yes’, you can change a behaviour without looking at the belief that turned it into a pattern, but if the change is to be long-lasting you need look at the engine that’s driving it. After all, you wouldn’t slap a 2018 autobody atop a Model-T engine and expect the car to run differently than it did a hundred years ago, so why expect that from a behaviour change?)

The second thing we asked was that she take up an activity her husband was good at but that she might have trouble with, and to record that process. Here, in her own words, is what she experienced.

“I can’t tell you the number of times in a day I had to hold myself back from jumping in and fixing things or from coming up with what I thought were better-than-their solutions to a design or client issue. It was frustrating; I could see what needed to be done, but what became even clearer was the hesitancy on everyone’s part to offer solutions… as if I was setting them up to either tear those solutions apart or to compare them to my much better ones. Which is when I realized I’d gotten my sense of importance by being right or better-than. Ego was driving my behaviour.

At the same time, and at your suggestion, I took up a new activity… something my husband was good at but that I wasn’t. I chose pie-making, and while that choice might sound silly to you, I knew it was going to be a challenge because I’d tried in the past and couldn’t make a good one. My husband however, is an expert, and so we agreed that he would ‘mentor’ me.
It is very difficult to make a good lemon-meringue pie; the intricacies in turning out a top-notch product are unnerving. After three attempts, I was ready to strangle my husband. Not only because he hovered and constantly told me what to do (ergh), but because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the results I wanted. ‘It’s easy,’ he said that fateful (for him) Saturday. ‘Here; I’ll show you.’ And he swept my latest attempts aside and put together a great pie.

Needless to say, the whole experience left me feeling diminished, which is when I realized what the people at work had been experiencing. They wanted to figure out solutions to the problems they were facing just like I wanted to figure out how to make that darn pie. They didn’t want some expert hovering over them telling them what to do, and they didn’t want someone else to do the job for them and in doing so, take away the experience of having achieved something on their own. They resented it, just as I resented my husband sweeping my attempts aside. ‘Oh, this is how they feel’ I remember saying to myself.

What do I do differently at work now?

Most of it came down to teaching myself how to step back and listen, which meant letting go of the idea that because I was good at many things, I was somehow the superior thinker. I had a real problem doing that; so, because I’m so success-driven, I told myself that compromise is an attribute that can be achieved by listening and then acting on that information instead of functioning as a closed system. An attribute? Something to achieve… excel at?! Now that’s something any ego can get behind.

I also realized that by insisting people come around to my way of thinking, I never let them experience the joy of persuading me about the merits of their way. I’d taken away the idea that they could manage alone. By cutting them off, I’d infantilized them… made them less-than. I’d forced them to compromise their abilities; their belief in their thinking processes, to say nothing of breaching their self-confidence.

Retention stats are telling me that things have definitely changed around here, but to me, the real change is apparent in the way people are behaving. Employees are more autonomous; they’re coming to me less and less, which has freed me up to start a new business venture.

And perhaps most satisfyingly, there’s a new air of relaxation about the place. Yesterday, I walked past someone who said: ‘Hey boss, how’s it going?’ But what I really heard was: ‘Hey, isn’t it great we’re all in this together’.

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