Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Shove over, Simon Sinek. It's Trolley Man



Two household names. For different reasons. In vastly different contexts.

Simon Sinek, articulate, clever, charismatic TED talker has been selling us his key premise for a while now. With over one million LinkedIn followers, people are certainly paying attention. His BIG idea? Knowing your Why.

Tragedy and terror hit the streets of Melbourne again three weeks ago. Not outside my office this time but right downstairs from the office of a close friend. There was the mystery man it took us two days to name; so he became "Trolley Man". Caught up in a horrific situation with nothing between him and a knife-wielding terrorist other than a shopping trolley.

It turns out Michael Rogers was not your average CBD business person. His Big Why was as powerful, poignant and poetic as Apple's. "I just wanted to do something good for once in my life" is what the man who'd faced burglary charges only days before told us later. For that weekend we celebrated his bravery while we turned another page in our book about the loss of innocence or as we say in therapy, the further "shattering of our assumptions". On Monday, notwithstanding our respect and admiration for the upstander who put his life in danger trying to save others, as opposed to the amateur videographers hoping they might go viral on Instagram that night, Graham Ashton, Chief Commissioner of Police, had the invidious task of giving us the responsible police version of "Do not try this at home".

The Why was great! But what if Trolley Man had died like our beloved Sisto Malaspina?
What if he had obscured the vision of the police and one of them had been fatally stabbed?
What if, while police were trying to get around him for a better view of the attacker, another civilian had been knifed or shot?

And while we probably didn't like this being pointed out by Chief Commissioner Ashton and in a sometimes bleak world we need to believe that many people are fundamentally good (and most are) , the why isn't good enough if the what is lousy. 

How often have I sat with a respondent in an investigation accused of bullying and heard them tell me with seemingly 100% sincerity that they didn't mean to bully anyone. Indeed there is an abundance of evidence to show that much abrasive workplace behaviour occurs in situations when dedicated people are pressing for good outcomes but get taken over by the dark side of the force while they do it.

There's the time when I investigated a grievance where the young man newly arrived from another country and an entirely different culture with an obvious crush on a young attractive co-worker, lavished her with compliments, left flowers on her desk, then one night followed her to the station and onto her train. What did he tell me was his reason for persisting with his attention? She was friendly. She had smiled at him. He really thought she liked him. His why was intelligible, even romantic. His what was stalking.

I've seen this one many times and it's delicate. I acknowledge that. Enter the compassionate boss, profoundly aware of the concurrent and prolonged non-work- related stress (or mental health challenges) being experienced by a member of staff. The well-meaning manager rationalises poor performance, costly (even high risk) mistakes, unscheduled absences, lengthy personal telephone calls and to me, the never-acceptable, explosive behaviour. The manager wants to be kind and be seen to be too. That's the why. They say nothing. They do nothing. That's the what. The staff member is neither accountable nor responsible and may not even be fit for work. Other staff can lurch between genuine sympathy and mild irritation, from resenting the manager to emotional exhaustion as they walk the tightrope between team support and vicarious distress (and particularly if aspects of private life being shared have personal relevance for them).

Simon Sinek, I'm not jealous of your one million LinkedIn followers. I will admit I have video envy because the seven minute Why you should Start With Why is dynamite! I agree that identifying the social and moral cause of what we do can be a hugely motivating force. That's why I'm still inspired to do M.A.D (make a difference) work some 23 years after I established my organisational psychology practice. It may even explain why most of us keep going until late December each year when our bodies are telling us to stop after Cup Day.

But our intent, even when it's good, needs to be matched by our impact and "Starting with Why" should be quickly followed by "Make sure you get the What right too!" Steve Jobs' poignant and poetic vision of "a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind" doesn't make me feel better about the corporation as a consumer afflicted with four devices worth of Lock-In when my iPhone curiously starts acting up just as the new model is launched.