After that bit of “rant” on “double bagging” last week, I really want to offer you a “good” story. I am sure there are quite a few out there, but since I haven’t heard from anyone, I dug up an old story to share in this space.
The story is short and succinct. Way back in the late 40s, a manager employed “emotional intelligence” principle and helped launch a group of brilliant scientists that invented the transistor at what was then Bell Labs. (Of course, mine is 20/20 hindsight based on legend, and Bell Labs is itself now a sad shadow of its former glory [*], which does open this entire posting to cynicism, but bear with me.) The manager involved in organizing the team at Bell Labs really just might have possessed some intelligence in reading people especially in the context of the post-war environment. This manager understood the personalities of the three key scientists, William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. He knew Shockley’s prickly and egotistic personality, and appreciated the complementary nature of Bardeen’s and Brattain’s styles despite their wide age difference. The solution seemed obvious: The manager made sure that Shockley’s office was well removed from Bardeen and Brattain’s shared office.
These three scientists eventually won a shared Nobel Prize (and Bardeen went on to win a second Nobel for his work in superconductivity). Their work on semiconductors has put Silicon Valley on the business map, in addition to the invention of the all-important transistor technology.
Okay, that isn’t much of a story because the whole narrative about the invention of transistor is much more complicated (reference “Crystal Fire”). What I want to highlight here is just that simple point of entry (to a success): Knowing how to read people, and acting upon that knowledge, can go a long way. Further, knowing and trusting how to put people into a complementary working relationship is a rare art. Can it be learned? I have to believe “yes,” and I know for certain it’s not a 12-step program.
But this leads me to ponder about the environment of today’s organization. While managers still have some discretionary authority to put people in teams, or pair them, today’s managers are hampered by the following:
- It is next to impossible to fire people. In fact, even moving someone out of a team – not firing – can be a headache lasting for months.
- Unless the organization is flourishing and raking in profit, hiring isn’t straightforward (so much for the myth of “job creators”). As for non-profit organizations? Getting approval for hiring would involve several levels of signatures and concomitant micro-managing. Here is an interesting conundrum: Shouldn’t the non-profit, constrained by resources, cut the layers of bureaucratic insulation to be more cost-effective?
- Speaking of hiring, when organizations are in the position to hire, their first hires are generally at the levels that would help boost the production. The pace of growth for R&D is typically much slower.
- I am not aware of too many organizations that can adjust office and workspace assignments to allow for managers to move people.
Perhaps these are but the few not-easily quantifiable factors that have contributed to the modern day stress level for managers. In turn, managers’ stress impacts on the direct reports whose stress may make their family lives harder to manage. Then, the family’s collective stress gets spilled over into work…
Right, I am supposed to focus on the good part of the story. Let me get back to emotional intelligence. Given modern day management stress, the managers who have a good grasp of those “soft aspects” of human behavior and emotions are the real leaders, or effective managers. Be wary of those who are only known to be “decisive” (“Neutron Jack” didn’t build Nobel-caliber technologies at GE). There are all sorts of decision tools: models, statistics, formulae, charts, computer programs, etc. However fancy tools there maybe, there will never be perfect or complete information and information sources. So, ultimately, managers have to make decisions based on their inner ability (intuition, vision, gestalt, whatever you want to call) of reading people, situations, and environment…the “soft sides.”
[*] The legend goes, In the 1970’s scientists who were interviewed for Bell Labs positions were taken to newly-refurbished laboratory rooms and asked, “If this room were filled floor-to-ceiling with $100 bills, what would you accomplish?” By today we’ve forgotten how to even dream of such an institution.
May the week bring you some “soft” satisfaction. Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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