The Benevolent Manager

This essay was originally written as a Restroom Reflection, sent out to clients when I was working as a corporate communication skills coach. It's about benevolence in management, via Confucius.

As an improviser, I'm not your most obvious follower of Confucianism. Dependant as it is on the rites of a hierarchical society, Confucianism assigns everyone a place in society and according forms of behavior. Siblings, wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters, subjects and lords, all are to behave in manners befitting their stations. If they do so with sincerity, harmony will reign.

In short, no one flies by the seat of their pants. That can't be good!

Yet I'm drawn to this ethical system's concept of humaneness, or benevolence, particularly when I consider how organizations go about getting ideas out of their people.

Feeling comfortable offering one's ideas requires not only creativity but also confidence, especially when seated a few uncomfortable seats away from the boss at an unattractive meeting table. More than this, though, I'd say it requires a benevolent boss - a humane leader who recognizes that patience is a virtue. Confucius says, "To rule with virtue is like the North Star in its place, around which all other stars revolve, in homage."

How many of us feel our bosses are virtuous, or benevolent? How many of us, as bosses, consider the question of benevolence? Does the word ever come to mind? Ever?

If you're wondering what benevolence comes down to, let's keep things Confucian. The Master was a little coy on the subject, even though it was one of the axes of his philosophy: "Resoluteness, persistence, simplicity, and slowness to speak are close to benevolence."

Slowness to speak. That's the bit that strikes me. Slowness to speak (unless it is the result of a slow wit) means consideration and reflection. it might be reflection on the merits of the idea offered; it might equally be reflection on how to respond politely to a completely harebrained concept. Either way, it's good, and leads to appreciation.

I was in a meeting with a company's innovation team the other day, and when I asked them about the general attitude of the company's management when soliciting ideas, there was a sharp intake of breath, sucked powerfully through the teeth. They weren't shocked at the question; they were imitating the way the bosses respond to ideas. This sucking in of air is employed, I believe, to imply reflection. But we all know it comes across as, "How can I have hired this idiot?" Maybe you're slow to speak, but if you've already done The Suck, no words are necessary.

So a humane, benevolent manager takes time when an idea is posited. Another complaint of the innovation team was that when people put forth an idea, the boss would say, "Great. You do it." Which means that they were loath to open up not because they feared the idea's rejection but because they actually feared its acceptance. If the idea is a good one, then, it behooves a leader to take time to consider the best way to go about implementing it, the best way of employing the people at hand.

That seems to be to be the paramount role of managers: to encourage the individuals in their teams, and the team as a whole, to discover and then perform at their potential. Reflection and slowness to speak will help. Ideas will flow, and fewer mistakes will occur. Unless, of course, the people involved are beyond help, in which case it is helpful to remember what Confucius also said: "Rotten wood cannot be carved nor a wall of dung troweled."

The "As If" Principle

Originally a Restroom Reflection, first published on March 5, 2014.

A few years ago I ran into a young friend, Michelle, who was studying musical theater, and who had just come out of a singing lesson. In the course of the lesson, her wonderfully wise teacher had asked her what she wore to sleep in. She wasn’t being cheeky; she was trying to help her student sing with greater depth. The answer? Winnie the Pooh pajamas. “Go into a lingerie shop and get yourself a lacy nightgown,” her teacher said. “You’ll never be able to sing if you don’t sing from your womb, and you’ll never sing from your womb if you sleep in children’s pajamas.”

This keeps coming back to me as I’m reading a book by Richard Wiseman called Rip It Up, the fundamental message of which is that small changes in behavior have a big impact on thoughts and feelings. In 1884, the American philosopher William James argued that if you behaved as if you were a certain type of person you would become that person. A few thousand years earlier, Confucius put it about that people could be improved by self-cultivation, and that our habits are what distinguish us from each other. Today, psychologists call the cultivation of new behavior in this way the ‘As If’ principle. You can watch a short animated video about it here.

In my communication skills coaching, I’ve been a broken record reminding people that they know what confidence looks like, and that imitating confident behavior will have an impact on their mental state. There’s always some part of the nervous person’s brain saying to another part of his brain, “Look! His shoulders are slumping! His hands are shaking! Danger! Send more adrenalin! Make him run away!” It makes sense, then, that a straight back and a firm handshake will not only impress his listeners but will also impress his self, calming his brain. We can try to talk ourselves into feeling less nervous, but behaving ourselves into feeling less nervous may be equally if not more important.

Behaving “as if” is a form of self-education, and just like any successful education, it requires persistence. Changing from someone with a weak handshake into someone who always has a strong handshake takes time, just as learning a language takes time. When I wanted to change from someone who couldn’t speak Chinese to someone who spoke it well, I spent six years on it. If we spent six years on confidence, or kindness, or leadership, or creativity, we’d have these traits and abilities embedded deep in our systems.

But back to nighties. I recently got in touch with Michelle and asked if she had gone out and bought some age-appropriate sleepwear. She had indeed, and had really felt the impact. “I feel that I carry myself differently gradually,” she wrote to me, “and feel more mature and more grounded.”

Maybe you already have your power suit, or your maturity nightgown. What’s key is that you remember how it makes you feel, and carry that feeling with you when you’re not wearing it. And then, if you’re still a bit tentative, imagine that the people around you are naked. You can take it from Mark Twain: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

I Understand Ukranian

Originally a Restroom Reflection, first published on November 16, 2014.

I’m pretty sure I’m on the same SPAM lists you are. Weekly I’m awarded national lottery prizes, monthly I’m offered Robert Mugabe’s millions, found in his cupboard by a housekeeper. They just need a few details from me. I haven’t enjoyed being on those lists, but it has been interesting to register the changes in the communication over time. For example, when we started getting emails from Chinese as well as Nigerians alerting us to the money they are willing to release into our accounts, we moved from lengthy heart-string-pulling epistles to a cursory “I’ve got a deal worth $7M to talk to you about. Reply me.”

I hate those emails as much as I hate the ones inviting me to be a delegate at a petrochemical or aviation conference. I hate them slightly less than the unsolicited newsletters I end up reading against my better judgment and then respond to in order both to unsubscribe and to correct their spelling and grammar.

There’s one list I’ve been really glad to be on, though: the Ukrainian one. The address and the subject line are always in Cyrillic, and since they are identified as SPAM by my mail program, the words there are in tan rather than black. While this color makes an English junk subject look junky, somehow it makes the Cyrillic look golden. At least, now that I’ve started really studying them, it does. Because they’re lovely.

Nobody else writes to me with the same visual charm. The emails are never very long, and they’re always a pleasant balance of images and words. They don’t fool around with background colors, but they vary the font colors for impact. There’s never more than one exclamation point at the end of any sentence as they endeavor to sell me a truck, encourage me to build on some attractive pastureland, invite me to a small seaside hotel, or suggest a teambuilding course on a sailboat.

The word ‘teambuilding’ was in English on that last one, and I recognize only enough of the Cyrillic alphabet to have understood that flights to New York were being offered for a mere $327. Everything else should have been completely foreign to me. And yet I’m able to understand the fundamental message of all these emails. And I am motivated by them – much, much more motivated than I am by the info-heavy advertisements that I get from companies at home, in my own language.

Somehow the Ukrainian emails come across as more authentic, less overblown. The photos generally look as if they were taken by someone who works in the little hotel itself, or is proud of the trucks in their yard. They seem to have chosen their words carefully, so that a few are enough. When pictures are taken so they look not only attractive but also realistic, and therefore trustworthy, I find I look at them for longer. I can imagine myself in them, walking through that pasture, standing on that beach, deciding why I should buy that truck.

Even if it’s been a long time since I saw one of those emails, I still remember it. I remember the wildflowers. I remember imagining the smell of the place. I’ve never had that experience with a stock photo.

I can’t tell the senders of these emails how much I appreciate their communication style, so I’m telling you. And now I’m turning back to a short story I’m working on, to take another look at its authenticity.