Friday, March 21, 2008

Old time management theory - the tense walk

Photo by JR Robertson (Flickr)

From the vaults: This article first appeared in my then column, The Other Side, in Business & Finance magazine in February 2004:

Many years ago I came across a colleague furtively reading a large, heavy book with strong, black covers.

I wondered if it was a Bible or a missal and as such a development would constitute a prime piece of gossip in our office I made it my business to take a look at it when she went to lunch.

It was actually a book on management. Specifically it was about how to behave at work so that the company will make you a manager and what to do after you get the big job.

One of the key strategies which the ambitious employee should adopt, it told its unfortunate readers, was to "cultivate the tense walk".

As you walked around the office - yes, once upon a time people used to actually walk from one desk to another instead of sending emails - you should tense up your muscles, especially those of your shoulders, neck and face. You should march instead of walking. Maybe you should tense up your buttocks as well, I don't remember, though I think you'd probably fall over if you tried that while marching with scrunched-up face, neck and shoulders.

Anyhow, there you are, marching around the office looking like the bad marine sergeant in one of those movies in which the sensitive guy always ends up shooting himself.

Your colleagues will be impressed by this, the book insisted. What a serious fellow, they will say, clearly executive material.

And one day one of the top men will see you marching around and will say, Make that man a manager and look sharp about it.

I say "man" because I have a feeling this book was written for a man's world - though, on reflection, I've come across one or two women managers who can do a pretty terrifying tense walk.

Now, the thing about this ridiculous book is that it buys into the idea that a manager should be one particular type of person and that particular type only.

Clearly the manager, in this vision of the world, should be Mister Tough - there he is marching around the place ready to leap into action at any moment. And he should by no means be a shrinking violent. He should be a tough-minded extravert who can put himself out there and not give a damn.

But is it necessarily the case that only certain types of people suit certain jobs? If you are building a team, should you surround yourself with tough minded extraverts and ban all sensitive souls from the premises?

After all, if you were putting a football team together you'd want it to be made up of tough extraverts, wouldn't you?

Would you really? Would you leave Roy Keane off the team, then? I've never seen the result of any personality tests on Roy Keane but he seems to me to be an introvert. Tough-minded, yes, but an introvert, inward looking, more likely to retreat into the kitchen during a party than clown around in the living-room. An extravert just couldn't have sat alone in that room in Saipan waiting for a plane to take him away from the world cup.

So keeping introverted people off your team makes no sense at all.

But would it be good for everyone on your management team to be a tough guy, of whatever gender and whether introverted or extraverted?

Not necessarily. Shut a whole bunch of tough guys in a room and ask them to agree on a project and you could still be waiting at Christmas. And when they finally emerge, having slugged it out until everyone's exhausted, there's a good chance they will have come up with the wrong approach.

Why? Well, without some introverted and/or sensitive people on the team, who's going to actually listen to what other people have to say? Who's going to take a thoughtful approach to what's going on? Who's going to point out the need to take account of the sensitivities of other people who are not in the room but whose cooperation is vital?

On every team you need a mix - tough, sensitive, extravert and introvert. Oddly enough, it's often the extraverts who recognise this and it's the introverts who beat themselves up for not being tough guys.

Remember that whatever your personality style is, you bring something valuable on the table.

So relax, accept yourself - and forget the tense walk. It's bad for your back.

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