Too Clever to Compromise?

comprising skills and conflict management

Sheila owns a tech company. She has an MBA and a CPA designation, plus she designs excellent systems and writes exceptional code. She’s a hands-on can-do sort of person. For example, she rebuilt an old MGB, and designed and drew up plans for the addition to her house.

She’s also a great athlete: she can jack-knife from a high diving board and ski the toughest double-black diamond run. She even has a happy marriage and three unspoiled kids. Everything she’s achieved in life is due to an unusually high level of capability, and of course, hard work. Let’s just say that she’s a cracker-jack; the kind of person lots of young people seek to emulate.

Her business started off as a one-woman shop. She did everything, and though it’s grown exponentially, she’s kept her pulse on every aspect of the business: she’s in on every client-meeting; in on every design aspect with her front and back-end engineers, and she even likes to stay up at night rejigging code.

You would think the company would be doing better than it is for the number of clients it has, but staff turn-over is high, affecting every level from the engineering team to the coders to the marketing team. Which is odd, because they hire top-notch people and pay them well; the offices are beautiful and conveniently located, and there’s even an on-site daycare, which is the primary reason that employees with young children out-stay their team-mates, given that as soon as said children reach school-age, those parents leave.

It took some digging, but at issue is the very thing that made her a success – her wide-ranging and high level of competencies and the confidence she has in them. In the event that you raise an objection to her recommendations, her designs or to what she’s coded, she will take it to the mat with you, not knowing that the reason you say ‘uncle’ is not because her way is better (though it often is), but because she’s the boss.

She infringes. And so she leaves her people feeling a little less than… not quite as good as.

Well, put yourself in their shoes. Imagine if your ‘helpful’ boss, colleague, or friend was always jumping in with a solution before you had a chance to come up with your own, or with one that was just a tad better than yours? You might grow a little tired of it. You might cringe a little every time that person approached. Which is exactly the way many of Sheila’s people react when she comes around. She’s so smart, so capable, so knowledgeable and so confident in her ability to solve every issue that she ends up alienating her employees to the point that they leave.

They feel diminished by all that competency and ‘helpfulness’. And because it happens again and again, resentment (that small anger that stays inside, eating away) builds. That sense of being lessened is compounded because people then feel ashamed about feeling resentful.

What’s happening is that she’s taking away their independence and denying them the experience of having managed alone… of being able to stand back and look at what one has done so as to consider its good and bad points.

We all know or have met or even are people like Sheila – people who have it all. But the one thing many of them don’t have is the ability to compromise. They’ve not had to learn how to do it; they don’t understand the process; they don’t know how to give and take; they don’t know how to pull themselves back from their ‘better solution’ and let others go about finding theirs. And because they don’t understand compromise, they can’t reap the fruits of other people’s best work, and in particular, they miss out on the most marvellous benefit of all: humility. Because it’s humility that keeps the ego in check, that makes us ‘shut-up’, that shows respect for others, and that allows us to learn in the process.

Our challenge to Sheila?  Step back… way back.

Let her people do the jobs she hired them to do. In short, we asked her to not offer to ‘help’ or to make any suggestions regarding the projects her engineers were working on. We asked her to absent herself from meetings for a month unless a client or employee specifically requested her presence. We asked her to stop ‘fixing’ the code. And we asked her to keep a daily record of her experience: the feelings; impulses; failures and successes, and shifts (if any) in attitude. In essence, we asked her to carry on a silent negotiation with herself and her employees in hopes that it would open the window to compromise, opening the door to the many contributions of others, and hopefully, bring about that beautiful sense of humility.

It’s always interesting and a great privilege to watch an enterprising client or a colleague take a step back and look at their behaviour; for they often encounter deep-seated and deeply entrenched beliefs… the kinds of beliefs that blind even the best of us and make a particular behaviour seem completely reasonable – when it is anything but that. This is where the big learning and growth can take place for all of us; uncovering our blind spots.

In our May/June issue, we’ll look at what Sheila experienced as she considered both her behaviour and underlying beliefs.


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