Monday, February 15, 2010

Insensitivity Training

In today's Financial Times Lucy Kellaway declares that she has discovered "the single most sensible word that [she'd] seen on the flabby subject of leadership in at least a decade."

That word is: "insensitivity." Link here.

For all these many years businessfolk have suffered under the imperious demand to be more sensitive than thou. They were implored to show more empathy, to feel everyone's pain, to exercise what was called "emotional intelligence."

Thanks to Daniel Goleman, who coined the phrase "emotional intelligence," the therapy culture invaded the executive suite. People were running off to do sensitivity training; they were getting in touch with their feelings; they were becoming more thin-skinned.

Unfortunately, as Kellaway suggests, all of this empathy and sensitivity does not make you a better competitor. How will our legions of emotionally sensitive leaders compete effectively against the emotionally insensitive Chinese? For now, not very well.

All of these finely-tuned emotional states do not even make you any better at cooperation. If you belong to a team and the team is charged with completing a task, then your focus should be on the task at hand, not on how it makes your teammates feel.

In fact, if a teammate attempts to regale you with his emotional sensitivity you will probably resent him for being a distraction.

As Kellaway explains it, a leader who spends his time worrying about how badly people will feel if they are not chosen for a project, if they are not promoted, if they do not receive a raise, even if they are fired will simply not be able to function.

Looking at the way someone's feelings might be hurt by an executive decision will simply paralyze you.

To Kellaway a sensitive executive is simply a ditherer: "If you are sensitive you will dither and prevaricate, or you will do the necessary and then toss and turn [in your bed] fretting about the consequences."

You might, as an exercise here, try thinking of a political leader whose enhanced sensitivity has rendered him incapable of exercising executive leadership, to the point where his name has attracted the epithet: ditherer.

Of course, Kellaway does not propose that we make a fetish of insensitivity. She proposes that every executive suite have one officer who can monitor emotional sensitivity and who will tell the boss when he needs to address such an issue. As well as I can tell, that person is usually a Human Resources executive.

Nor does Kellaway declare that sensitivity is always a bad thing. Sensitivity is wonderful in love relationships and friendships. What works in the boudoir, however, should probably be kept out of the boardroom.

So, Kellaway recommends that executives undergo insensitivity training. Happily enough, that involves learning to do exactly what the therapy culture tells you not to do.

It other words you have to be a contrarian, not just in your investing decisions but in your adherence to cultural values.

For example, the therapy culture has it in for denial. Kellaway recommends that you develop your capacity for denial.

Certainly, she says, you cannot be an effective leader if you are too afraid of of failure: "confidence comes as a result of denying the likelihood of failure."

You should also be denying your doubts about the usefulness of what you are doing. A good leader soldiers on. He does not give in to denial and self-doubt.

Optimally, he should achieve what Kellaway calls mild emotional dyslexia. He should not be totally insensitive but he should have the ability to misread emotional cues, to ignore them, even to read them backwards.

To conclude her column, Kellawy addresses what is surely the thorniest issue: the question of sensitivity and gender.

To prove her point about the burden of sensitivity she notes that women, who are masters of sensitivity, tend not to rise very high on the corporate ladder. To the dismay of many Kellaway suggests that they are not being held back by a patriarchal conspiracy, but by their superior emotional intelligence.

In her words: "the average man, armed with his mild emotional dyslexia, has a most unfair advantage in being well equipped to sail through a day in the office and sleep like a baby in his bed at night."

This recalls a longstanding debate. Or, at least, I seem to recall that it does.

When women enter the workforce, should they be encouraged to be more like men, thus denying their emotional sensitivity, or should they try to make the business world safe for people whose leadership skills do not involve emotional dyslexia.

At the beginning of the most recent wave of feminism, the correct answer would have been that women can and should be more like men, the better to succeed at business. After Goleman, I believe, the pendulum swung in the other direction, and womanly traits were considered to make for better leaders. Men were exhorted to become more like women, to get in touch with their feminine sides, to develop their emotional intelligence and sensitivity.

If the current business climate is any indication, this did not work out very well.

Insensitivity training, anyone?

2 comments:

speedwell said...

I'm a woman with mild Asperger's, and I laughed and laughed at what you said. Insensitivity is the key to my success as an executive assistant and a software support specialist and even as a corporate trainer! The biggest way in which it's helped me lies in the fact that I can take a step back and be about the good of the program and all the users instead of the individual user and their individual feelings. I can smile and tell the truth when others feel constrained, and they respect me for it because I don't lack tact, in fact I'm very good at choosing my words--I simply don't always realize that I "shouldn't have said" what I did say. The top commercial real estate broker in my city, who had a reputation for ruthless negotiation, took me to a required training class on negotiation the firm held, and was shocked when I won a round from him. He said, "You just wiped away my tactics like they were nothing." And I said, "You were using tactics, were you? I just wanted to carry my point." In training classes, it is easy for me to keep order because I am not afraid of telling people what I won't put up with. Again, I get respect from this and I have a reputation as a great trainer.

My only problem is that I'm seen as formidable and intimidating. My weight has a small part in this, because I am an imposing weight (though I'm not unattractive, in my way). But mostly I think it's my plain-spokenness and my no-compromise attitude. It would be interesting to find out for sure one day.

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