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POSITIVE SAFETY CULTURES: OK, so you're a technical whiz

October 1, 2007
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Once upon a time, many, many moons ago I went to college. After four interesting years, I went to graduate school. Especially in grad school and the higher-level undergrad classes, I discovered a high value was placed on so-called critical thinking skills.

Being smart and being right were highly prized. They were more important than anything else (like, say, diplomacy and tact). Win the debate and you win — period.

One of the things I had to learn to “control” in college and grad school was my lifelong southern roots training to show respect to elders and those in authority with a “sir” and “ma’am” appended to every communication. As a second-year college student my faculty advisor greatly embarrassed me by pointing out (publicly) that he was not, in fact, my grandfather or my commanding officer, and I didn’t have to call him “sir.” But why not, I wondered. After all, he was my professor! And he was a number of years older to boot! A double whammy!

In graduate school, my advisor pulled me aside after a research seminar meeting, and told me that while I seemed to possess some modest level of ability, he was very disappointed that I didn’t challenge him. I always seemed to agree with him and never argue. Me? Start an argument with a prominent university professor? No, sir!

In the upper, upper reaches of the educational system — or culture — it became evident that being smart and being right, and making your abilities known to others, were critically important, highly valued traits. So I fell in line, to a point.

Learning roles
Then I got a job as a professor. It’s still very important in this role to be smart and be right much of the time, but other attributes are valued as well. In my role as a teacher, I should nurture the interest of students, build their confidence, and provide some options and some direction. As a colleague, I’m squarely in a political system, comparable in many ways — though not identical — to a business. Those above me control my future (especially pre-tenure). I should be closely linked with my peers; for mutual support. I have some obligation to mentor those junior to me.

In my consulting role, it’s also very important that I be smart and right. Miss the point, come to a wrong conclusion, give bad advice, and I’m likely out the door. But it’s also very important that I understand and “fit” the culture and climate of the organization.

For instance, signage can give you clues. An HR director I once worked had this poster on his door: “Intelligence is knowing when the boss is wrong. Wisdom is not pointing it out.” He had another one: “If you think OSHA is a city in Wisconsin, we need to talk.”

“Misfits”
“Alex” is a very bright young engineer with a degree from one of the top engineering schools in the country. Technically he’s a whiz. He is definitely a high-potential employee, slated for higher levels of responsibility. He is a great problem-solver — quick as lightning.

But Alex’s head is still back at State U. He operates as a solo performer, and acts as though getting 100 on the exam is the ultimate expression of ability. So he tells others how to do their job, shows them where they are wrong, and solves their problems without their input. Many of those others are twice his age, and were doing their jobs just fine when he was still in diapers (as they have told him at times).

He off-loads tasks from his to-do list, but not in a way that enhances the recipient’s engagement, knowledge and skill. When his boss tells him to do something, he does it well ... as long as it “makes sense” to him. If it doesn’t, he tells the boss so, and explains why his way is better.

Surprise! Alex’s employees don’t like working with him. They think he’s arrogant, disrespectful, a “know it all,” and they want him to go away. Of course, they can help that happen. Indeed, when he was out for two weeks they set a production record (true in the case of one Alex I know about).

Alex’s boss thinks he is arrogant, disrespectful of her (even borderline insubordinate), a “know it all,” and she thinks he may not make it. And he is such a talented young man, an excellent engineer!

Can I get a mentor!?
In many work settings, being smart and being right are just not enough.

Interpersonal-effectiveness competencies that involve relationship management and team-building are essential. They multiply an individual’s effectiveness. The ideal combination is to bring IQ into the workplace, and filter and regulate it through EQ (so-called emotional intelligence).

The bright “newbies” in our organizations don’t need more technical training (though that is often what they seek). And they don’t need to be thrown into arguably the position with the highest impact on day-to-day productivity and morale, namely first-line supervisor, without any people-skills training (though that is often what happens)!

I’m familiar with several corporate mentoring programs. Some are quite effective — I think the best way to help the likes of Alex learn the culture, especially its political facets. Alex is already smart, and he’s a quick study of technical issues. What’s missing are people-skills and political-savvy. Coach and mentor him on the EQ side, and help him understand how to be effective with those above, below and around him in the hierarchy if you want to develop him to his fullest potential.

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