THE MANAGERIAL FISHBOWL: HOW MANAGERS MISUSE INTUITION
by Susan Nero, Ph.D.
The Truman Show, a current box office success, depicts the story of a man whose life is, in fact, a television documentary designed for continual viewing by the public. Truman offers a humorous comment on the intrusion of television into our lives and on the experience of becoming a public person.
Managers would do well to consider this movie carefully, because becoming a manager means becoming a public person. Managers operate in a fishbowl. Their behavior is closely observed; their habits are constantly scrutinized; their decisions are debated, and their motives are questioned. When competent workers move into management, they are often surprised to find how difficult it is just to be themselves on the job. When the world is watching, everyone’s behavior becomes highly visible, greatly magnified,
and easily distorted.
The recently promoted manager learns in this fishbowl. His or her job no longer consists of being highly competent in some technical area. Instead, the manager’s work is now focused on getting things done through other people and on holding an enlightened perspective on the organization and its larger environment.
In my work as a management consultant and educator of graduate management students, I see many managers struggle under public scrutiny as they are forced to become aware of their “flat sides,” the underdeveloped skills and knowledge that previously went unnoticed because of the less public nature of their jobs. The most common flat side I see among managers is the misuse of their intuition.
Intuition is the ability to develop broad and complex understanding that incorporates many points of view. Intuition allows managers to see others and themselves with clarity and insight. It also enhances recognition of the links between the past, the present, and the future and provides a sense of vision that gives added meaning to the details.
Managers who misuse their intuition make errors of judgment that frequently lead to distrust and misunderstanding within their organization and seriously compromise the effectiveness of their actions. This problem is especially prevalent in organizations where there are many technical specialists-for example, engineers, computer specialists, accounting and finance people, data analysts, and laboratory technicians. The training and discipline necessary to do these technical jobs requires a highly specialized focus on data. These skills, while essential for technical competence, do not lead to an intuitive understanding of the complexity and ambiguity of people and organizations.
The Misuse of Intuition
I recently worked with a manager in the computer industry who relied on his intuition. He made some erroneous assumptions about one of his employees, a young man who had worked for him for several years. The employee’s contribution to the organization had been maximized through a
job description and a schedule that allowed the employee time for his outside interest-performing music. When a new supervisory job was added to this organization, the manager never considered the younger employee for the position, though he viewed the employee as a skilled and reliable worker. The manager assumed that since the employee had configured his current job hours around his musical activities, he would not be interested in moving into a supervisory role.
When I suggested to the manager that he might want to discuss the supervisory job with the employee, the manager listed many reasons he thought the employee wouldn’t be interested in this new role. Yet, I knew from talking with the employee myself that he was unhappy and felt that the
manager did not appreciate his work, listen to his ideas, or create a meaningful career path for him. Being considered for a job in supervision would have reversed all of these negatives for the employee. Not only had the manager misread the employee, but he had also set the stage for losing a valuable member of his work team without being aware of it.
This manager made several common errors in using his intuition:
Filling in too many blanks. Managers who make this error select pieces of information and construct a story about people and situations that is incomplete or inaccurate. They make too many assumptions based on limited facts. This too-narrow mapping of their human environment leads them to flawed conclusions. The people who work around managers such as these will begin to question management’s judgment and may withhold important information-thus reinforcing the manager’s inability to develop
an accurate understanding of what is going on in his area of responsibility.
Dancing alone. The manager in the example above, after making assumptions, then failed to discuss his assumptions with his employee. The ability to engage in the sustained discussions that permit us to check out our perceptions and assumptions with others and then revise our thinking requires unusual interpersonal competence. Managers who cannot discuss their intuitions with others and then alter their own thinking in light of new information set themselves up to fail. Usually, managers do not realize
that such discussions are possible and necessary. Further, they often don’t realize it is their management responsibility to initiate such discussions. By dancing alone, they reinforce the distance between themselves and others and impede creative problem solving.
Jumping the fence. A third mistake managers make is to lose their own perspective while focusing on and anticipating the thoughts and feelings of others. Managers who make this error abandon their own point of view and are usually not aware of doing so. This subtle error creates many problems for managers, because their behavior interferes with gaining an understanding of what others really think and want. Thus, the manager fails to do his job-representing his own position in a straightforward and
persuasive manner-and prevents the employee from doing the same.
Jumping the fence also leaves the other person with a sense that something is off in the conversation, but uncertain about what it is. The result is often a stilted and unsatisfying exchange. In the longer term,
these inauthentic exchanges open the manager to increased scrutiny and skepticism from CO-workers who are unable to determine where the manager really stands on important issues.
“The Vision Thing”
Knowing how to develop and use intuitive skills is especially important in executing another key managerial responsibility: providing the big picture. Indeed, one of the most common complaints I hear in
organizations is that the boss doesn’t communicate the big picture, and people do not know why they are doing what they are doing or where the organization is headed. Big picture thinking-seeing how the past and present relate to the future and how all of the parts relate to the whole-helps managers inspire employees for top performance and boosts morale. While most people in an organization focus on their individual contributions, the manager sustains this larger view. It is his job to shape the meaning of events and the vision of the future. If a manager does not have a well-honed intuitive sense, he will not know how to handle this crucial management responsibility.
Developing Intuitive Skills
A manager who works to develop his organizational vision and to communicate it effectively to subordinates and other co-workers begins to distinguish himself from the mediocre managerial
performance that causes so many complaints in the workplace. Managers who come to view their role as one of providing direction, meaning, insight, and vision for employees are the managers whose public image is that of skilled leaders.
Fortunately, managers can develop their intuition and the communication skills and the interpersonal competence to use it correctly. As with any body of knowledge, when the need is recognized and the desire to learn is present, intuition can be developed systematically. For example, the manager in the story above was able to correct his errors. He spoke with the employee and cleared up the misunderstandings that had built up between them. That employee is now the new supervisor in the
In my experience, managers who learn to increase their intuitive skills through management development and higher education, also learn how to live in the public eye with mastery and self-confidence. They can truly be themselves at work again.
Susan Nero, Ph.D., is on the faculty of the Master of Arts in Management program at Antioch University, Los Angeles.