Hope for Innocence, Expect Duplicity

Some managers are suspicious by nature.  They constantly suspect the motives of peers, superiors, and even subordinates in the organization.  These managers tend to operate under the maxim:  "Most people will lie, cheat, and steal if they think they can get away with it."

Other managers are a bit like Pollyanna, overly optimistic about everyone they meet.  They tend to interpret every statement and action in as positive a light as possible, often forgiving suspect or even bad behaviors, and giving their perpetrators multiple chances to prove they are really good people.

Of course, most real managers fall somewhere in between.  But what they don't tend to do is vacillate.  Once you read a manager's basic tenancy along this dimension, you can bet that behavior pattern will similarly play out over and over again.  By examining the extremes, we can draw some conclusions about where it might be best to try to place oneself along the spectrum.

The advantages to being suspicious include:  rarely being surprised by the self-serving behavior of others, being attuned to the darker and more devious political games played in the organization, and being quicker to recognize a person who is wrong for a job or in the wrong job.

The primary disadvantage is a grim and gloomy disposition that tends toward the negative.  The suspicious manager tends to bring his/her closest associates down, and may even appear paranoid on occasion (although a wise mentor of mine was fond of quipping that "...just because a manager is paranoid, doesn't mean he has no enemies.")

The main advantages accruing to the optimistic manager focus on the positive work environment the tend to foster.  Disadvantages include being tricked or blindsided by predatory employees (subordinates, peers, and superiors), sticking by problem subordinates too long, and sometimes leaving others wondering why the manager is taking "so long" to recognize what they see as obvious.

My personal predisposition is to be overly optimistic.  This probably comes from a deep-seated need to have people like and approve of me -- especially those I work closely with.  As a result, I am slow to recognize mediocre performers, often developing complicated rationalizations to explain their seemingly strange or incorrect behaviors, rather than recognizing the obvious.

The predisposition makes me subject to the same kind of advantages and disadvantages I described above.  But to be a more effective manager, I needed to develop ways of improving my balance between suspicion and optimism.  Below are five tactics that I've recognized as having a place in doing just that.

  1. Look for the simple explanation.  To avoid rationalizing aberrant behaviors, a manager must begin with the assumption that the most obvious explanation is usually the correct one when it comes to people's motives and capabilities.
  2. Look for triggers.  It took many years, but eventually I realized that when I began to suspect someone might not be right for a particular position, my gut was telling me something that my head just hadn't come to grips with.  By paying attention to those gut instincts, I have sometimes been able to speed the analytical process.
  3. Think through political implications.  My optimistic predisposition exposed me to political gamesmanship.  When I realized I was talking myself out of a negative conclusion about someone, I learned I also needed to think about how that conclusion would play politically, and where I might be exposed. 
  4. Listen to advice from a suspicious person.   I looked for and sought out contrary opinions and points of view.  Believing in them and acting on them was sometimes quite difficult. 
  5. Act quickly when reaching a conclusion.  Given that I was often slow in realizing someone was wrong for a particular role, I couldn't afford to waste time once I reached the conclusion.  I learned to try to act as quickly as possible once the conclusion was clear. 

I'm sure for managers with a bias toward being suspicious, there are similar rules of thumb that can help them increase their optimism about people they encounter in their work, thus moving them more into balance.   Alas, as I don't live there, I can't easily dispense advice for them.

Balancing suspicious and optimistic viewpoints related to the motives of others is critical to the successful manager's navigation of corporate life.  Living at either extreme tends to cause problems for the manager that will ultimately limit their effectiveness and their careers.  19.4

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If you are intrigued by the ideas presented in my blog posts, check out some of my other writing.  Novels: LEVERAGEINCENTIVIZEDELIVERABLES and now HEIR APPARENT (published 3/2/2013) -- note, the Kindle version of DELIVERABLES (a prequel to HEIR APPARENT) is on sale for a limited time for $2.99.

 A Minneapolis tech firm as the setting for murder and espionage?  You betcha!

A Minneapolis tech firm as the setting for murder and espionage?  You betcha!

This is the cover of  the Audiobook version of LEVERAGE, which I narrated.  The story revolves around an offbeat engineer working for Global Guidance Corporation who shows up one night at Mark Carson's house shot and bleeding out.  Mark decides to investigate the crime himself, and plenty of complications ensue as he uncovers a wild conspiracy.

My novels are based on extensions of my 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.  Most were inspired by real events.