Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Embarrassment Rules the World?

When I worked at Bell Labs (lo those many years ago), I had an Executive Director whose governing management philosophy was that 'embarrassment rules the world'. That is, he felt that people achieved goals, met their commitments, and made all of their critical decisions based primarily on doing whatever was necessary to avoid being embarrassed. This Executive Director was also a person who inspired trepidation and trembling among many subordinates because of his forceful personality and this underlying philosophy. When he would hold meetings, or go around the organization to visit and check up on things, if he felt that people were not delivering to his expectations (which were often not made clear), he would publicly embarrass them in front of many others. The result was that people would make sure that they were doing enough to avoid such public embarrassment and humiliation, but most often just enough. They would often not work to exceed expectations or to excel, due to the chances of being embarrassed in front of others by this domineering executive.  

Such a management approach may ensure a level of performance just a notch above mediocrity, but certainly not a level of excellence. When a level of excellence was achieved, it was virtually always due to the natural desire of the person or people in the organization to excel, and not to satisfy the perverse philosophy of this manager. I learned a lot from this Executive Director, on how not to manage people (see Learn from Good Role Models; Learn More from Bad!, Mis-Managers: How Bad Managers Can Poison The WellMis-Managers 2: Janus & Old YellerMis-Managers 3: Builder-Upper & Tearer-DownerMis-Managers 4: Micro-Managers - People, Design & ProcessMis-Managers 5: Power Tripper & Turf Builder, Mis-Managers 6: Mentor, Tactician & Strategist, and Mis-Managers 7: Hands-Off, Wheeler-Dealer, Credit Taker/Thief & A$$hole).

I strongly disagree with 'embarrassment rules the world' as a governing management philosophy and believe it is destructive. However, avoiding embarrassment does often serve as a strong motivator in people’s lives. For those witnessing the embarrassment being handed out, it is strange, but some people seem to take perverse pleasure at seeing others being publicly embarrassed. As an example, American Idol is one of the top rated shows on television, largely, until this most recent season, due to the embarrassment and disparagement handed out weekly by Simon Cowell to contestants who don’t live up to his expectations. Taking pleasure in another’s misfortune is a sad but unfortunately real observation on some people’s behavior that tends to reinforce the 'embarrassment rules the world' philosophy. In this blog post, I’d like to explore what an 'embarrassment rules the world' approach means, problems it can cause, and what I believe is a far more beneficial management philosophy.

By embracing an 'embarrassment rules the world' philosophy, a manager is assuming that, on their own, employees have no inherent ability to perform well, that they are inherently shallow, that they have no will or independent thought of their own. This shows an extremely cynical and jaded view of people and of the world, and really says more about the person espousing this philosophy than it does about the people reporting to this person. Such a philosophy does not recognize employees’ self-motivation and personal desire to excel. It does not recognize their acceptance of personal responsibility, independent of consequences. It does not recognize their personal sense of pride in doing a job well. It does not recognize the actions of strongly motivated teams and the synergies that can come from such coherent groups. It does not recognize an employee’s personal desire to not let the team down, not because of fear of embarrassment, but because of a strong desire to do whatever is necessary to meet the needs of their buddies (see Pigasus - When Pigs Fly!). Think of soldiers in a war zone – their biggest concern is not of being embarrassed, but to not let their buddies down or put them in danger.

When people live under the rule of an 'embarrassment rules the world' manager, they are undeniably influenced by living in such an environment. No one wants to be made to look like a fool in front of others. No one wants to be ridiculed and told publicly they were wrong even when they know in their heart they were right. No one wants to see their accomplishments belittled or their intelligence questioned in a public forum. The reality is that people living in an 'embarrassment rules the world' environment will actually reinforce this manager’s view, because they will go out of their way to remain unnoticed by such a manager in order to avoid public humiliation. This will be the case whether they are the top or bottom performer in an organization. No one likes to be publicly humiliated. The manager will believe that his philosophy is working. [Note: This management philosophy, while bad, is still better that managers who practice a 'Floggings will continue until morale improves' philosophy (see Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves!)]

What can you do, as an employee, to assess your organization? Take some time to analyze the people in your chain of management to size up their guiding management philosophy. Do they view their subordinates with respect or with cynicism? Do they assume that people perform the way they do solely to avoid embarrassment? Do they see false motives in everything around them? Do they actively seek ways to embarrass others to prove their point that 'embarrassment rules the world'? Do they have the capacity to recognize individual and/or group achievement for what it really is, rather than as actions to avoid embarrassment?  

As an employee, what should be the governing management philosophy of a good manager and a good company? What are the managers’ attributes and how do they behave? Ideally you want managers who respect their employees as individuals and as members of a team, managers who actively encourage, recognize, and reward strong individual and/or group achievement, managers who actively mentor people to achieve greatness, managers who bring people together rather than preying on their differences by embarrassing them in front of others. You want managers who are demanding and push the organization to achieve greatness by reaching difficult but attainable goals. You want managers who can see the big picture and the role of his/her organization in achieving that big picture. You want managers who you respect as much as they respect you. When you find such a manager or such a management team, be grateful, as you have a prize worth treasuring. For managers who exhibit some, but not all of these traits, still be grateful, and do what you can to help them develop the other desired traits. 

As a manager, look carefully at yourself to see how you manage your people. Do you exhibit the good traits listed above? Do you say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you say you'll do? [see Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, and Do What You Say You'll Do!]  Do your employees respect you, or do they fear or despise you? Every manager has his/her own approach and philosophy, but to be a truly effective manager, you need to treat your employees in the same fashion that you would like to be treated. Following an 'embarrassment rules the world' philosophy will not achieve that goal.

Copyright 2011 Workplace Insanity, All Rights Reserved

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