I was interviewing a CEO. He was a financially focused and hard-driving Wall Street executive. He told a story of a young employee who made a mistake and lost some money for the company. As I listened to the story, I knew I was talking to a man who had acquired the positive mental map. Here is why.
The young man who made the mistake visited the CEO and began to tell his story. The CEO sat quietly, listened to every word, asked if there was anything else. When the young man was clearly finished, the CEO thanked him for the visit, reassured him, and then sent him on his way. After telling the story, the CEO asked a question, “Do you think that was my instinctual response?”
He said his natural reaction would have been to become irate and to jump all over someone who had made such a mistake. Why did he not follow his natural inclination? Over time, this CEO has learned something counterintuitive: Following his natural instincts would only get him the short-term reward of exercising his authority and venting his frustrations.
While it might appear that a punitive response would have corrected the problem, he would, in fact, have only created a much bigger one. In attacking the employee, he would have created a conventional, closed culture in which truth will not speak to power. It would also become likely that the employees would not relate to each other in authentic ways. In a conventional, closed culture, people live in fear. Some executives actually believe this is a good thing. They want their people to be afraid. It increases the executive sense of control. Yet, people who live in fear tend to underperform. The conventional, fear-based logic is a logic in which everyone loses.
The evolved CEO also understands another point. A senior executive never has a conversation with one person. The entire organization is continually heeding the signals emanating not only from the words of the senior person but also from his or her behavior.
Every conversation is a building block of the organizational culture. A conversation with one is a conversation with all. Because this particular CEO has learned to transcend his natural orientation, he regulates his own behavior and chooses to enact the assumptions typical of a positive mental map.
In most organizations, that does not happen, and both truth and power decay. In managing your own unit, you may be wise to evaluate the extent to which you create a culture that lets truth speak to you.
How to I react to mistakes by others?
What do I believe about conversations and culture?
How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?