Flattering Lies

My first corporate job was at the then cutting edge company, Digital Equipment Corporation. It’s founder and CEO was the legendary Ken Olsen. He was a strong advocate for employee empowerment, even before the term was coined, and was an iconic figure for the over eighty thousand people that worked for him at the time. One of his favorite maxims was that no one knows a job better than the person doing it, so they ought to decide how it should be done.

You can imagine how excited I was when after being with the company for about a year, I was invited to attend a strategic planning seminar with him. I was even more excited at dinner the first night when I realized that I would be sitting at his table. What an honor, and what an opportunity to learn from one of the most enlightened leaders of the time!

There were maybe eight other tables in the banquet hall, and I took my seat at Ken’s. After not too long, the conversation in the room grew animated as the wine began to flow. But not at our table. Ken was a Quaker and did not drink, so few of the senior managers at the table felt comfortable taking more than a sip or too.

As we started on our salads, Ken began a discussion with the manager of one of the company’s European subsidiaries. He opened with, “So why are your results off this quarter?” Another bite of salad and then another question, each becoming more and more intimidating.  By the end of the course, the manager’s salad was untouched and he was drenched in sweat. It was the most uncomfortable meal I had ever had.

When it was over, I joined the other managers at the bar and told them what I had just observed. All of them had worked closely with Ken for years and none were surprised by my tale. As one put it, “Ken has a way of stripping you naked and making you walk down main street.” For those of us at a remove, Ken represented everything right about the company. But when you got close, life could become a living hell.

As time when on, I learned more about Ken’s contradictory management style. One of my managers resigned for a lesser job elsewhere, unwilling to take any more.  My new manager, also a direct report, displayed all of the signs of excessive tranquilizer use.

Perhaps Ken’s odd style was displayed most famously when he gave an interview proclaiming that personal computers were idiotic and the company would never make them.  At the same time, over four hundred of the company’s engineers were busy designing a PC in a group code-named K.O. With poetic irony, Digital was eventually acquired by the low end PC manufacturer, Compaq, when the market for mini-computers started to shrink.

So Ken talked a good game, but didn’t practice what he preached. But I don’t believe that Ken was much different from most managers, or for that matter from myself.  We all fall victim to tricks of the mind.  We have a view of ourselves, our self-image, and we maintain it by ignoring or rationalizing away any information to the contrary. It’s called cognitive dissonance reduction.

I’ve argued that management based on the insights of brain science doesn’t demand learning any new complex algorithms. All it requires is that we hold the idea in our minds that we all create our own unique versions of reality, which will differ from those of others. And given the way the mind works, the idea will drive the appropriate behavior.

The problem is that our minds, through the process of cognitive dissonance reduction, deceive us into thinking we hold the idea in our minds when we don’t. We delude ourselves into believing that we’re highly empathetic and strong participative managers, and all we allow ourselves to become aware of is information that supports the belief.

Because of this penchant for self-deceit. there are fewer “enlightened” managers than one would expect, especially given the overwhelming data that links approaches like participative management to dramatic improvements in performance. Even worse, managers that believe they’re managing participatively, but aren’t, then see direct proof that such an approach fails.

Yes, keeping in mind a couple of the key insights that come out of brain science will lead to more effective management, but only when we also apply them to ourselves. Perhaps the best managers are the ones that think they’re the worst. It makes them question everything they do and never believe the flattering lies we all tell ourselves.


  1. Robyn McMaster  |  July 26th, 2009

    Charles, thanks for thoughtfully bringing into focus how a top leader may think he or she has all the answers, but the emperor is naked. Your description of Ken Olson shows him to see himself as in touch, but truth is he sadly lagged behind, especially as it involved latest technology that might have put his company at the forefront. He empowered himself, not his employees though he said the opposite.
    It’s amazing that many people are not in touch with their inner beliefs – which are often opposite of their words, but actually are what others see in action. It’s mind boggling that we may be out of touch with our true beliefs.
    A person truly strong in intrapersonal intelligence is whole and in touch with strenghths and weaknesses. A needy person tries to compensate for weaknesses by “acting out” in interpersonal relationships.

  2. Charles Jacobs  |  July 29th, 2009

    Your comments are always encouraging and insightful. You have an incredible knack for translating the complexities of brain science into lessons all of us can relate to and act on.
    Thanks for the input.

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