Do You See What I See?

I’m working with a company right now that is doing very well. I really enjoy the people I get to deal with every day, and am impressed with their expertise and professionalism. Many of the people I interact with are becoming increasingly frustrated because their leader seems to be taken in by a person that everyone else would term a “fraud”. It’s not that this person doesn’t have some redeeming qualities, it’s just that the contribution made is questionable and the trouble caused by this person’s actions is very great.

As an outsider looking in, I am always fascinated by this type of dynamic. It’s not that the leader isn’t smart; in fact it’s quite the opposite, they have a very impressive set of credentials and background. They appear savvy, thoughtful and dedicated. But this troubling person has their ear, and it continues to amaze the other staff that the leader doesn’t listen to anyone else and seems to be buffaloed by this individual.

I notice a number of things as I ponder this situation. It’s not an uncommon one. We’ve all worked somewhere, or know of someone who has, where a person who really isn’t contributing or is even making trouble appears to be in greater favor than those who are working on behalf of the firm and trying to do their best for the firm.

In this case, there is a behavioral match between these two people. When looking at the styles of communication they use, they could be the same person. When someone is behaviorally like us, for example if I am conflict-oriented and assertive, and you are too, we are able to communicate more easily and naturally. Or if I am a slow, thoughtful person who likes to ponder ideas, and you are too, we understand one another’s need for time and consideration.

These two people click very well so when one talks, the other immediately listens. We don’t even do this on purpose or think about it very much, it just happens naturally. The other piece is values – what we care about. In this situation both people hold a high Theoretical value (the love of learning). They both like to research and study and talk about findings to one another. The rest of the team around them is very different. They are all very high Utilitarian (ROI focused). They want to talk about efficiency and time-to-market, but these two folks are not as interested in that. They would prefer to have a Theoretical discussion pondering ideas.

Then there are the filters we use with others. If we like a person and we trust a person, such as has happened in this situation, we are much less likely to question what they tell us. We believe them and may listen to them over another. We don’t have the same filters to ask “Why?” or “How does that matter?” or “Can you prove that to me?” that we might use with someone with whom we don’t have the same strength of relationship. In some cases we become so biased that we don’t filter anything, and listen to another person at the total expense of everyone else around us.

The last piece I observe derives from a sense of security or contrasting sense of fear. When we aren’t sure what’s happening around us, and in this culture there is a great deal of unrest and confusion in many different areas, we will tend to stick to something that we know. Even those of us who thrive on change may choose to avoid it when things get chaotic. Here “the devil I know is better than the one I don’t” may apply. Even if the person this leader is trusting isn’t the best person around, they are a reliable source and a “rock” in some ways to the leader. This cannot be minimized, because we all like to think that someone is standing beside us or behind us to catch us when we fall!

Does observing these dynamics alter anything in this situation? No. In fact, it cements the fact that this dynamic will probably not change unless something quite dramatic happens. But perhaps it can help the people who are looking on with disbelief and frustration become more objective about the “why?” of the behavior.

It’s important that we all stay aware of our own filters and our impressions of others, and that we trust, but verify, when it really matters.