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February 17, 2010

What Good Dog Parents Know that Corporate Leaders Don’t

Blog cartoon 2-17-10
[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

The thing about “leaders” is they often say “no” when they should say “yes,” and vice versa. Take the issue of exclusion—deciding which new hires align with corporate culture and which don’t. I used to think if you wore a dark, “sober” suit and didn’t say anything frightening in job interviews, you’d nail it. But decision-makers in organizations are much touchier than I thought.

About 10 years ago, I was in St. Petersburg, FL, (desperately) looking for a job, and was shocked at how easily prospective employers were scared away. One place I interviewed at mentioned they started at 8 (a.m.!), and when I joked about not being a morning person, I can see, looking back on the meeting, they were taken aback. I guess in their culture you’re supposed to be enthusiastic about everything. At another place I had just the opposite experience. I didn’t smile at one of the architecture firm’s partners as he strolled through the lobby, and I always wondered whether that affected my chances. I was going for a job as a public relations writer, so I guess it would make sense they were looking for someone who’s cheerful towards strangers. More than that, though, I think the firm had a “smile all the time” policy in which no matter how miserable you were you had to smile. All that smiling makes me miserable just thinking of it.

Anyway, my point is corporate culture is set by leadership, and it’s frequently more exclusionary than useful. Instead of saying “yes” to differing personality types, many leaders appear to have a specific Company XYZ person in mind. Beyond the cruelty of not embracing a wide array of personality types, the exclusionary approach to corporate culture isn’t smart because along with those “weird” personalities are talents that may be lacking at the carefully calibrated company.

In the area of unfortunate “yes’s” there is the inability some “leaders” have putting their foot down with clients or bosses asking them to do what would cause their work teams, or themselves, more distress than their paycheck will ever compensate them for. On the one hand they worry about getting fired for disagreeing too often, but on another hand, they’re just too scared to say “no.”  Their hesitancy has more to do with their fear of saying “no” than to professional concerns. Most “leaders” with an inability to say “no” also probably have the same problem in their personal life.

If they can’t say “no” to their bosses or customers asking for the unreasonable, what are the chances they’ll be able to say “no” to an unethical business strategy, or a request from the boss which the “leader” can see ultimately will hurt the company?  I’ve heard a lot about the “power of ‘no’,” but haven’t heard it discussed in the context of corporate leadership. It’s a lesson I would incorporate in every leadership development course if I were a trainer. How many of you do so already?

Some who have a problem saying “no” are what I’ve heard psychologists call “pleasers,” people who need to please others to feel like their life is in synch. When I was a little girl and my family was contemplating what kind of dog to get, my father bought a guide book on all the different dog breeds. Some dogs, like some people, were described as pleasers, while others weren’t. The traditional wisdom is you want a dog who’s a pleaser, but that’s not what we chose. What we chose was a crazy Standard Poodle with white and apricot markings. Sure, she tried biting strangers unless they were properly introduced to her, but she was super-smart and always did a great job protecting our house. Daisy had no problem saying “no,” and even would sometimes refuse to eat left over steak. I always admired her commitment to self-determination. I wish more leaders were like her.

Do your company’s leaders blindly take whatever is offered them, afraid to say they don’t care for it?
Interestingly, the lesson of Daisy also ties back to the problem of leaders who say “no” too often. What if my family had insisted on enforcing a dog culture of only accepting “pleaser” pets into our household?  We would have missed out on a dog who was perfect for us. It’s same with your employees. Why cultivate leaders who enforce a corporate culture with such strict parameters those who aren’t go along/get along types aren’t given a voice, or even a foot in the door? The dissenters frequently have the best ideas. They’re the ones who notice something isn’t right, and sometimes can offer a better way of doing things. Contrarians don’t always offer solutions, but one thing is for sure—you have to notice a problem before you can fix it.

Leadership is different than choosing and managing pet dogs, but I think in a lot of ways it’s not so different because of the ideas leaders are taught of how to get their point across to workers, and how to manage the initiatives cascaded down to them. When a dog does something he’s not supposed to, like jumping on a fancy couch or trying to bite a neighbor, a human dog parent who’s trained the pet right, and who has been trained right himself as a human dog parent, will say “no” sharply. That sharp “no,” and the strong affirmative when it’s warranted, accompanied by treats, is the kind of response to requests—whether from above, below, or outside the company—that’s required.

How good are your company’s leaders at saying “yes” and “no?”  Do they know when to go-along and when to take a stand?


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Marina Miranda

At my work, I have two bosses that have very different perspectives: The one directly above me is very straight forward and will say no if she has to. She is not afraid of anyone and will always say the right answer whether it is yes or whether it is no. The boss of my boss is completely the opposite. He is a very nice man, but does not know how to say no to someone. He always tries to please everyone by always saying that everything will be fine, when sometimes, it is not going to be.
They do not get along very well, she is very opinionated, and say everything that goes on her mind, and on the other hand, he is very quiet and does not say much.
So, I have both kinds of bosses. Each one has their own advantage and disadvantage. They are very nice and professional, but work each with a different approach.

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