What About Bob? Helping managers find and fix their flaws

By Mike Cook
Management Developer 

A tip of my hat goes to Mike Brown of Progressive Business Publications for the subject of this week’s post.

Mike and I were on the phone doing the preliminaries for a “webinar” I was delivering for his organization that day.

During our call the conversation turned to my relatively slow acceptance of all things technical, and Mike suggested I acknowledge when I made “baby steps” and not worry about whether I might ever become an eager adopter like folks I seem to encounter at every turn.

As you of course know, great minds often laugh at the same jokes and Mike’s reference to “baby steps” led us quickly to a reflection on one of our mutually favorite comedy films, the 1991 ‘What About Bob?’ with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss.

“Baby Steps” was the title of the book published by the Dreyfuss character, Dr. Marvin, which he of course recommended to his patient Bob who was played by Bill Murray. So Mike and I had our little moment of Zen together that morning.

Later in the day I continued to reflect back on the baby steps reference. Being something of a natural lateral thinker, it wasn’t long before I started making connections between the notion of baby steps and the development of managers.

If your working career has been anything like mine, whether you’re involved as I am in management development or not, you have experience with managers, sometimes very senior managers who might appear to be like Bill Murray’s “Bob” (video clip) and: 1) Seem to be oblivious to or uncaring about the negative impact they have on those around them; 2) To the average observer appear to do as much damage as they do good; 3) Have no known “fan club” but plenty of people who see them as damaged goods, yet they are somehow protected by unseen forces and; 4) Display little or no interest in reflecting on their thinking processes or behavior patterns or receiving any feedback about them.

Here’s the deal on these people, they are not like Bob. He was lacking in guile and basically pure of heart.

Though he stumbled through the process of life, he was willing to look at himself as honestly as possible at any moment and make the little changes that were recommended to him. And when he could see that he had offended he stepped up and tried to make amends.

I trust your judgment, if you think people like those I have just described are “tools.”

In one of the several slang senses of that word, they probably are, and you should be mindful of the fact that they are protected by unseen forces and give them a wide birth. You tangle with them at your own risk.

On the other hand there are some Bob-like characters in every organization. Some of these are very high-potential people as well, and here we do well to focus our attention.

I’ve mentioned ‘Immunity to Change’ before. The book and the process by the same name both describe and unfold a powerful approach to professional/personal development based on baby steps.

What’s more uncomfortable than…

-Seeing someone with obvious high potential and leadership capability get tangled in their own emotions and rendered ineffective?

-Witnessing a manager, senior or otherwise, drive their followers away with an unconscious and obviously harmful habitual behavior?

-Seeing a bright talent at any age passed over for advancement because they haven’t been properly mentored about some quirk of personality that puts others off?

-Conducting an exit interview with someone you really hate to see go but will anyway because they lack the ability to see how to make fundamental adaptations to their behaviors and no one got to them in time?

If these last references ring any bells and I hope they do, painfully, then I recommend that you read a recent piece from the New York Times on March 17 titled ‘Helping Managers Find and Fix Their Flaws’ by Natasha Singer. (Because the Times has the pay wall thingy now, you’ll need to go to this aggregate site and scroll down about half the page on the right.)

Like I said, I am something of a lateral thinker. It doesn’t have to be pretty; it just has to work. Baby Steps!

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com.

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