Thursday, October 15, 2015

Oblivious Leadership

The old priest prepared his sermon all week for family mass. He would target the children, draw out of them some gems and that way make his point to the adults. The message would be thankfulness, since Christmas was approaching and the Advent gospel was on appreciating God’s gifts.

Sunday. The sermon started as planned: Up came the children, sitting around the old priest in the timeless pose of prophet and disciples. The priest was direct, “What are you thankful for?”

Without hesitation, a blonde boy in the back of the group shot up a hand. The priest encouraged: “Yes, young man; what are you thankful for?”

“Life!” came the reply.

The old priest’s delight could hardly be contained, as he looked up and proclaimed to the adults, “People, did you hear that!? The boy is thankful for life!”

Seeing the misunderstanding, the boy piped up “Life is a game!” for he had been given the board game “Life” as a gift, and for that he was thankful.

The face of the old priest transformed into shock. He beseeched: “No, child, life is NOT a game!”

The perplexed child could not decode the sudden turn in the priest. Dismayed, he responded matter-of-factly, “Life is a game.”  

Tell-tale gasps and barely-suppressed laughs from the congregation spoke not of humor but of surprise, yet to the old priest the tittering sounds told a cynical story. He scanned the adults, now doubly shocked by their complicity in the child’s warped view. Down went all heads, striking a praying pose, but the shaking shoulders suggested otherwise.

Derailed, the sermon meandered through the priest’s messages on thankfulness, gratefully without any more audience participation. Calm returned. All sat in silence, sharing the quiet shame of having played a part in the derailment – made worse by the fact that only the old priest himself was oblivious.

Lest I be throwing the first stone, I admit that the story of the old priest is my story too, and yours. All of us suffer at times from not understanding the other’s understanding. Research shows that humans have a lot of trouble bridging this gap in understanding: We naturally tend to assume that others see what we see the way we see it. So if you think that this is not a problem for you, your self-assurance, itself, is a symptom of the problem.

The problem of understanding the other’s understanding is even worse for leaders. Our life experiences shape our points of view. For most leaders, their life experiences are very different from those they lead. So it is that leaders and followers rarely see things from the same vantage point. Yet leaders are expected to persuade their followers – despite the fact that they do not understand their followers' understanding.

No wonder that a vast industry tries to help leaders communicate. These efforts have mixed results, since communication failures often are just a symptom of the deeper understanding problem. It won’t help if I improve my communication techniques, but remain clueless about how my followers see things. This fact explains many a notorious gaff: The politician who knows not the price of bread; the executive flying a private jet to ask for government support; the CEO’s video explanation of layoffs, filmed in his paneled office. Such miscues result from not understanding the other's understanding.

So what should you do to bridge the understanding gap? Step one is to get beyond the suggestion to "be empathetic" that one often reads about. Remember, the problem is that you don't have a clue. You cannot empathize with someone whose life is a complete mystery to you. Some say you can bridge the gap by "walking around" at work - except that everybody knows you're the boss.

If you are serious about bridging the understanding gap, you could take a page from the tradition of academic ethnographers: Put yourself (literally) in the other’s shoes. What is it really like to be them? Try actually working in your organization – obey their rules, try to get along with others who don't know you're a boss, and work within the guidelines and systems that you have set for your people. This approach will not be easy, but you may end up coming to the most important understanding: that life is not a game.


Many academic literatures address this issue in different ways. One of my favorite approaches is the work of Professor Thomas Gilovich. Examples of using ethnography in the workplace can be found in the work of Professor John Van Maanen