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STRATEGY

Grist: Beyond the Vale of Smiles
 

Come in out of the sun. Your employees are shining you on.
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It is the preordained right of every columnist to be able to take two cultural events, yoke them together, and voila -- create a topic. This month, my privilege takes me to a foreign film and the most recent season of a hit TV show, yielding a hinge question for anyone who runs a business: Who among your advisers can you truly believe?

A recent German film, Good Bye, Lenin! has a clever premise: A woman named Christiane has a heart attack and then slips into a coma eight months before the Berlin Wall falls. When she emerges, the world has changed, except that her condition is so fragile her doctor tells her son that she cannot be exposed to any shocks.

To protect her, he must re-create the prefall world, rummaging in the garbage for old products, hooking up a VCR to make sure only old East German news reaches her TV.

As I watched the film, it occurred to me that Christiane could just as easily be a CEO, surrounded by watchful gatekeepers who control access to information as a way of shaping perception. How dangerous that would be! (Not only to the boss, but to the entire organization.)

Now, let's move on to The Sopranos. One of this year's plot threads is Tony's fear that, well, he is being yessed to death by his subordinates. When he raises the issue to his wife, she replies: "They go around complimenting you on your new shoes, tell you you're not going bald. Do you think they really care? You're the boss. They're scared of you. They have to kiss your ass and laugh at your stupid jokes."

Anyone who runs a business -- myself included -- has had occasion to ponder these deep, dark, destabilizing truths. (As Prince said when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: "A real friend and mentor is not on your payroll.") But those anxieties are too easily dismissed or denied. We construct a litany of all those times our employees have disagreed with us or raised a contrary point of view. Most of us want to convince ourselves that we aren't surrounded by bobble-headed yes people.

While this is an occupational hazard for all leaders, it seems to me that entrepreneurs are more vulnerable than most. They tend to be more passionate, more driven, more self-confident -- and also faster to punish those who dare to question. Often, there just isn't the time for elaborate internal debate.

How can you be sure you are being appropriately challenged, and that you are doing your best to minimize the Darwinian kiss-up survival mechanism? Frankly, I admit I don't have any easy answers to this question. I do, however, have a few suggestions based on my own not always perfect track record in this area.

Reward those who challenge.

Do your best to create a culture where rational dissent is the currency of the realm. And be careful about shooting the messenger.ÊDon't reflexively say that you're doing this already. Messenger-annihilation takes many forms, some more subtle than others.

Spend individual time with your key people.

A group dynamic tends to provoke a deadly chorus of "I have to agree with Adam," simply because no one wants to go limb climbing in that kind of setting.ÊBut remarkable things happen when you take folks aside and ask them what they really think about launching that new product or making that acquisition.

Go two-deep, go three-deep.Ê

Talk to the people in your company who spend most of their day biting their tongue and thinking, "I wish I could tell someone how dumb this is." There's no better way to avoid the Good Bye, Lenin! syndrome and to make sure you aren't being fed a manufactured reality by your palace guard. They won't like it. And they will concoct all sorts of reasons why you shouldn't have a lot of exposure to those deeper in the organization. In truth, it does mess with the hierarchy. But isn't that better than the hierarchy messing with you?

Every so often, be intentionally outrageous.

Suggest something that makes no sense on any level, and see who pushes back and who doesn't. This final suggestion may seem a bit contrived, but I think it cuts to the heart of this issue. In the end, your own instincts have to be your best guide. Only by searching what's in your own heart can you gauge the quality of the advice you receive. We'll have to wait to see if Tony Soprano ever gets to that point of self-knowledge.

Adam Hanft is founder and CEO of Hanft Unlimited Inc., a Manhattan-based consulting, advertising, and publishing firm.

Last updated: Jul 1, 2004




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