Literal Thinking

Real stories of workplace follies

Archive for the ‘Communication’ Category

The case of the red-faced autocratic leader

Posted by A Friend on 9 February 2009

Headless Dictator This is the third of a three-part series where we present short cases of spur of the moment statements made that led to unfavorable results taken from our own practice. The underlying theme of the series is some thoughts are just not meant to be spoken, even if these were true.

Jordan joined a global consultancy as the new managing director in one of the company’s developing country offices. Jordan was in the military for a few years before finding success as a business executive, so his management and leadership style has a strong military influence. He is very authoritative, straight to the point, and results driven. He is also brash and abrupt; and in a behavioral test done as part of one of the company’s team building activities, he scored zero for empathy.

Jordan very quickly established himself as a strong organizational leader who sets the pace and dictates directions, and he gave his employees very little scope to exercise their own creativity and initiative. This is a practice more common in some military organizations; and this management approach is also typical of many developing country companies, especially in Asia.

But while it’s true that Jordan was managing a developing country office, most of his employees were high achieving professionals, with a number of them experienced at C-level advisory consulting. His controlling behavior made some of his junior consultants feel inadequate, but the more senior ones who rightly believed they were much too experienced to just follow his directives just felt resentful.

Within six months of taking office, Jordan started seeing some of his consultants leave. In one case, Christina, a mid-level consultant who had been very vocal about her disgruntlement with new management, filed her resignation. In the exit interview, Jordan asked Christina what her plans for the future were. Christina coyly responded that she might try applying for consulting positions overseas.

Jordan haughtily responded: “To be honest, I don’t think any of the consultants in this practice are qualified to work overseas.” This shocked Christina, so she honestly replied: “Actually Jordan, I already have an offer to work in our London office.” After which she stormed off, leaving the red faced Jordan pondering how such could have happened without him getting an inkling of it.

Needless to say, the story of the exit interview spread like wildfire to the rest of the organization. And Christina was not the last person to leave, nor was she the last to find an overseas assignment.

Jordan’s management style is in itself an interesting case study on autocratic leadership (Mindtools has a good overview of common leadership styles). We suspect that it was especially hard for him to not take a parting shot at Christina, just to further stamp his authority. But just as autocratic leadership has generally gone out of favor, Jordan’s cynical attempt to disparage for no clear reason spectacularly backfired.

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Blog Carnival. The February Leadership Development Carnival is on at Dan McCarthy’s Great Leadership blog, and it’s worth a visit or three. Over 30 articles from some of the best blogs on leadership and management are featured, including one we wrote on personal responsibility. This is our first time to send a submission to a blog carnival, so we are pleased to have been included.


Posted in Case Studies, Communication, Leadership & Management | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

The case of the pompous graduate

Posted by A Friend on 4 February 2009

Job Interview This is the second of a three-part series where we present short cases of spur of the moment statements made that led to unfavorable results taken from our own practice. The underlying theme of the series is some thoughts are just not meant to be spoken, even if these were true.

Erin is a graduate of one of the top universities in the country. Her school consistently makes it to the top of major placement surveys for graduates, and its graduates are often the first to be snared and given the highest starting salaries by the biggest companies in the region.

So Erin was very optimistic about her employment chances. She should be, considering that she already had three very positive employment interviews two months before she was to even officially graduate. But Erin did not want to be rushed into making a decision, and she told all three prospective employers that.

Erin received a few more interview offers in the succeeding months. She actually felt that she was offered more than she could reasonably handle, so she even found it necessary to politely turn down a few of the invitations. Of those that she attended, the result was largely positive. She had a couple of ordinary ones, but Erin thought that this was just part of the law of averages.

It was not until a month after graduation that Erin took job hunting more seriously. She started going for second interviews and began the arduous – it is, for in-demand graduates like her – task of sifting through some of her prospective employers. In the end, she chose three companies that she would be happy to work with.

One of these companies is a global IT services firm that is known for its popular two-year training program for its graduate recruits. The program starts with a three-month intensive course in its state-of-the art overseas training center. This is then followed by rotations in at least three different departments that graduates choose, based on their individual interests and competencies.

The prospect of attending this two year intensive course, plus the opportunity to have a “free” three-month overseas holiday, was greatly appealing to Erin. She only had two problems: (1) the company, of the three that she short-listed, offered the lowest starting salary; and (2) starting salaries are standardized, and Erin felt that she should at least receive some premium because she is a graduate of the best school.

In her final interview, Erin’s prospective manager told her that the company generally recruits 20 graduate trainees every year. The trainees come from at least five different schools, with only around ten per cent of these coming from Erin’s school. Erin found this piece of information a great negotiating platform for a better salary.

Erin told her prospective manager: “I understand that you standardize the salary package you offer your graduate recruits, but I strongly feel that you should give me a premium. Compared to the majority of your prospective recruits, I’ve had better training and preparation for work after graduation, considering that I come from a more reputable school.”

The look of disappointment on her prospective manager’s face could not be masked after Erin said this. The prospective manager said: “I would have considered any other reason you used to negotiate for a higher salary, but I cannot accept this. And I cannot accept someone who already feels she is superior to her prospective peers even before she gets to meet them, so I will also have to regretfully withdraw our employment offer.”

Once the shock of the message died down, Erin’s interviewer helpfully said that he is sure Erin would find good employment elsewhere. He said that his withdrawal of the offer was more to hammer the point about humility and learning how to communicate properly. It is one thing to feel confident about one’s abilities, but it is another thing to pompously verbally communicate such confidence.

Posted in Career Management, Case Studies, Communication | Tagged: | 5 Comments »

Friendly communications, unfriendly consequences

Posted by A Friend on 1 February 2009

Careless Whispers Some of the most common workplace follies we see occur when people too quickly speak their minds out only to realize a second too late that they would have been better off keeping their thoughts to themselves.

In this and our next two posts, we will present some short cases from our own practice where spur of the moment statements made led to unfavorable results. The underlying theme of this series is some thoughts are just not meant to be spoken, even if these were true.

Eric is a young consulting professional working for a big four type organization. Eric was with a small boutique consultancy prior to joining this company, and while he is “in the big league” now, he made it a point to maintain friendly ties with some of his former colleagues.

Eric’s current and former companies are directly competing in a high growth segment of the local market. His previous company was one of the pioneering niche players, his current one a global behemoth that sees and wants to take advantage of local growth opportunities.

In one high profile project prospect, Eric’s current and former companies decided to submit a joint bid. The former company has the established local reputation, the current company has the financial clout and global name – it was going to be the perfect collaboration.

On paper, that is. In reality, Eric’s previous company sees the joint bid as its only opportunity to be involved in projects of such a large scale, considering that it does not have the financial muscle to be a sole bidder. On the other hand, Eric’s current company looks at the joint bid merely as a convenient entry point into the local market, and it intends to eventually ease the small partner out of the project.

Eric thought that he could quickly make a name for himself in his current company by being the unofficial liaison between the two new partners. He communicated directly with some of his previous colleagues about the new project prospect, mainly on a social level, and all in an unofficial capacity.

In one such social communication, Eric matter-of-factly mentioned his company’s plan of slowly easing his previous company out of the joint bid. It was just a purely social conversation, and he did not think much of it. Until the next day, when he was called in by his managing director, advised of a formal reprimand about company confidentiality, given clear instructions to stop communicating with his previous colleagues regarding company matters, and officially rolled off the prospective project team.

When this case happened, Eric was looked upon as a young consultant with a very promising future. However, there are things that one learns only from experience. As a budding consultant, Eric was keen to build rapport and relationships. This unfortunate experience will tell him that such an exercise does not require total honesty in all situations.

Posted in Case Studies, Communication | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »