People At All Levels Are Irrational Beings

Interview with Jesper Juul

Having the trust of their parents is a crucial aspect of the development of children’s personalities, whereas the trust of executives and other leaders is an important factor in the productivity, creativity, and morale of employees. We are not talking about blind faith but about a corporate culture based more on trust and encouragement than on control and formalized expectations.

Mr. Juul, is leadership in crisis? Recently we’ve been reading a lot about managers who are unable to inspire their employees and parents who are overwhelmed. What’s going on?

Within less than a generation, three things have changed dramatically:

1. Since the values that kept people compliant were based mostly on the needs of industrial society and the dictates of churches — and those old, long-held values do not exist anymore — the uncertainty associated with leadership is great.

2. Children grow up with a global perspective and with the knowledge that almost any future they choose is possible for them.

3. Democracy has finally reached companies as well as families. As a result, recognition of the individual human being has as well. This requires leaders to not only take themselves seriously as individuals, but to do the same for their employees. This means they have to practice principles and values that are often inconsistent with the principles and values they were brought up with and taught to respect.

According to some studies, managers fail especially in terms of interpersonal relationships. Why?

I think it is because they feel safe with the rules of superficial social relationships and have no experience with a more personal way of relating. Maybe they also confuse the personal with the private, and find it difficult or dangerous to risk being vulnerable. Throughout our history, people with power have always tried to appear invulnerable. This, of course, effectively cut them off from others and made them lonely. Loneliness became a virtue.

Where are the parallels to family situations?

There are many! Today’s parents also have great difficulty with, or are directly opposed to, the idea of making themselves vulnerable in front of their children. Conflict escalates because children are no longer reduced to mere role-playing, nor are they satisfied with it.

Mr. Juul, don’t you agree that we expect too much from managers? Their teams have to perform; intentions must be communicated. While managers are expected to improve the performance of their employees, they are expected to increase their own performance as well.

The days of almighty leaders or owners without empathy, and forever-submissive workers, are over.

I don’t know if it is too much. It is what it is. And we were all illprepared for this to occur. Teachers find themselves in similar situations and they burn out. So do parents.

The American comedian Groucho Marx was once asked, “How do you feel about sex, Mr. Marx?” His answer was, “I believe it has come to stay.” A very wise answer, as we now know. It’s the same with this situation: The days of almighty leaders or owners without empathy, and foreversubmissive workers, are over in our part of the world.

Why does the authoritarian leadership style no longer work, either for businesses or for families?

Because the costs in the form of lost human dignity are far too high for modern man to accept. And it is actually incorrect to assert that authoritarian leadership ever made things work. It was the needs of their employees and their willingness to submit that made it work.

It worked — so to speak — only because the employees were brought up in families with a similar kind of leadership style and did not know there could be any alternative.

For a short period of history, this regime generated great financial results for companies. But the price paid in humiliation, poor health, broken families, and unhappy women and men was far too high to be acceptable when alternatives became conceivable and viable.

Do we still need leadership? Maybe leadership will be replaced increasingly by self-organization.

I think we will experience that more and more, but that still requires leadership in the form of planning and control. Every organization needs leadership — i.e. leaders who are responsible for the culture, the values, and the quality of communication — and these factors already matter more to younger employees than the size of their pay cheques.

You once spoke about the “Power of Relationship.” What do you mean by that?

In any group where some people or one person has more power than others, the people in power are responsible for the quality of relating and communicating. This is a systemic fact. In a destructive culture with poor communication and/or an absence of personal recognition, employees can do very little to balance out the influence of bad leadership.

You say that taking care of relationships is the key to successful leadership. This may be easier in families than in companies. Often managers barely have the time toget to know their staff. Aren’t you expecting too much of them?

I am not demanding this; I’m just pointing it out. It is, however, a common misconception that high-quality relating requires a greater expenditure of time than poor relating does.

We are not talking about establishing friendships between leaders and the people they lead but about adding as much quality as possible to the brief meetings and encounters that leaders do have with people.

For fathers to spend time with their babies and toddlers is probably the best investment any organization can make in the quality of their future leadership.

Medical doctors are only now learning how much impact this has on healing for their patients, just as managers will experience the positive influence it has on the numbers and figures in their annual reports.

To what extent do you think that being a role model is important to good leadership?

It has been obvious for many years that the behaviour of the top people in an organization affects behaviour at the lower levels. So the behaviour ofleaders determines to a large degree how employees interact with their immediate leader and how they interact with customers, for instance.

What is obvious right now is that young entrepreneurs and executives lack good role models — very much as young fathers lack good role models.

You advise parents to have more confidence in their children and you advise executives to trust their employees more. But isn’t there a much firmer basis for establishing that trust in families than in companies?

Yes, that is one way of putting it, and it is certainly true. But there is an essential difference. Having the trust of their parents is a crucial aspect of the development of children’s personalities, whereas the trust of executives and other leaders is an important factor in the productivity, creativity, and morale of employees.

We are not talking about blind faith but about a corporate culture based more on trust and encouragement than on control and formalized expectations.

This is what so many leaders have learned over the past decade through “coaching” — which is only accessible to the top people, so far. The rest of the corporate population is dependent on their leaders to give them similar support.

What insights may a leader, by being a parent, take with him — and vice versa?

What we hear from, especially, young fathers and leaders today is that engaging in fatherhood beyond the role of obedient helpers provides them with interpersonal skills that they would otherwise have to achieve through seminars and workshops. And, of course, personal experience over many years.

The possibility for fathers to spend time with their babies and toddlers is probably the best investment any organization can make in the quality of their future leadership.

Why is it reasonable for a company to have employees with children?

I think that all available studies show that employees living in a partnership or family score higher on qualities that organizations want: stability, responsibility, dedication, and health. This is why it would be wise for many more companies and public organizations to embrace the fact that their employees have families — instead of regarding, for instance, an emotional crisis, a sick child, or a teenager in serious trouble as competition.

The wiser choice is to accept that all of these “time-consuming” events in family life have great educational values on all levels and that the owners or boards of directors decide to provide their employees with support and inspiration instead of making them feel guilty.

You once said that leadership requires conflict — especially at companies. But doesn’t that mean that employees will always come in second to their leaders? And doesn’t conflict cause resentment? What is wrong with having harmonious working relationships?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with harmonious working relationships. But the art of coexistence and collaboration is not about creating harmony. It is about knowing what to do when harmony no longer prevails.

It is also true that many conflicts between chiefs and employees are of a more political nature — which is why both parties have their organizations. However, there are many conflicts between co-workers and many conflicts between leaders and subordinates that cannot be solved by political or legal means.

Intervening in these conflicts, which should be very high on the agenda for every Human Resources department, requires empathy and interpersonal skills far beyond being nice, polite, and politically correct. These conflicts influence commitment, responsibility, creativity, and productivity — sometimes of whole departments.

And they have many secondary effects that are costly for the company as well. The less qualified a parent or a leader is, the more destructive the conflicts will be for everybody involved.

Men and women at all levels are irrational beings. That is our quality and what ultimately distinguishes us from robots.

This interview was conducted by Jan C. Weilbacher and published in Human Resources Manager, June/ July 2012.

The reality is that children need their parents’ authentic closeness. They need to live with and learn from people of flesh and blood. There are still people who subscribe to a rather outdated expression about defiant children—that they are testing the limits or looking for boundaries. This always happens in relationships where the adult tries to act in ways they think parents should behave. This applies to teachers and others who are part of the child’s life. It is my experience that children have a different objective—to explore whether there is a person behind the role. What they are really doing is challenging our ability and willingness to be authentic, attentive and credible.

It is much better for us and our children when we aim to be ourselves rather than try to “do the right thing”. Parents who are authentic are better parents than those who try to be theoretical parents. Parents who make mistakes and take responsibility for their mistakes are better parents than those who try to be perfect. Parents who strive for perfection will always make their children feel like failures and children who feel like failures often end up failing.



People At All Levels Are Irrational Beings

Åsa Schill

Verksam som: Handledare, Föreläsare, Coach

Ort: Göteborg

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