Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Hey boss, E is for excellence, not ego

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Great managers don't think about themselves first; too many of ours think of nothing else

So, in a week when nothing could really knock me down with a feather, apparently in New Zealand we have very ordinary bosses.

I know, I couldn't quite believe the news either. But there she was. University of Auckland economist Rhema Vaithianathan saying our bosses are knobs. According to a new study, we rate among the worst in the world. If we could improve our management, we could improve our productivity.

I don't doubt that Dr Vaithianathan is right. After all, she has published papers on the economics of genital mutilation and the Chinese famine.

Besides which, I always agree with myself and I wrote a column saying this a while ago.

We have got better at encouraging entrepreneurialism but we still see management, especially middle management, as being naff. Owning your own business is sexy. Business owners use fountain pens, whereas middle managers use roller balls. Or have pocket protectors. At least I think I said that.

Anyway, I don't always agree with myself. Often I am quite wrong about things, like that time I said Eric Watson had bad teeth.

Anyway, I disagree with Dr Vaithianathan's explanation for rubbish management - not Watson's teeth, don't ask me why I brought that up. She says it is simply because managers are too optimistic. Au contraire; I think they are just babies.

I have worked for managers who used to scrunch their hands into little waving fists, go red in the face and practically start to dribble when the wheels began to fall off. Wah! Most bosses, like infants, just think "me, me, me".

Whereas an excellent boss is like a war hero; they inspire respect because they are not thinking about their own safety. But those ones are few and far between.

Psychology Today quotes a study that has found bosses' egos are actually expanding. A five-year comparative study compared the traits of bosses and found "self-oriented" behaviour from bosses spiked by 50 per cent to become the overwhelming trait between 2004 and 2009.

What would make better managers would be if they all went into therapy. They need to sort out their own emotional guff and face their own fears. You don't really learn that on a corporate-leadership course and there are no tax breaks for it, either. But I do know you can't be a good manager unless you can put your own ego aside and be a giver rather than a taker.

If you want respect you have to be able to show the goal is not all about satisfying your own needs.

And here is the crucial bit: it takes maturity to see reality, to perceive the world as it really is. Childish managers are too weak to face the horror and existential angst of grim reality. They have to delude themselves that everything will be fine and dandy. That clouds their judgment. Maybe that's why we have all been in such denial over the extent of the global financial crisis. Smile and wave, boys! We're all just tickety.

When times are tough, such as during a recession, this week's financial meltdown or a crazy busy workplace, childish bad-boss behaviour is exacerbated. But it's in a crisis that the value of quality management will be most apparent, and most valuable.

That's why what Dr Vaithianathan says is so important. We have to improve our management or we will be stuffed. Then again, how likely is it that our managers will grow up when the biggest managers in the world, those running the most powerful economy in the world, themselves behave like toddlers?

dhc@deborahhillcone.com

- NZ Herald

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