Mutual Gain Through Mutual Respect

By Ron Ciancutti

Richard had great credentials, and management loved him. He was rocketing through the ranks and gaining credibility year after year. His office walls were covered with plaques, trophies, awards, and honors attesting to his skills.

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Years passed, and as a top urban planner he was becoming a staple in the local papers as the neighborhoods and facilities he created and renovated put a quality signature on the company and its subsidiaries. He was building a reputation for the company, the city, and himself.

While he hired a strong and talented support staff and tried to avoid the trappings of success, it became clear that he would always be a micro-manager—insisting that staff members’ creativity take a back seat to “the team” effort. Any individual accomplishment would be momentarily recognized, then immediately blended with the overall theme of the department’s work as a group. Richard felt that individuality would eventually poison the team as personal recognition could breed contempt. In many ways, he was probably right. Sometimes, when high achievers consistently stand out, others begin to repress their contributions and contain their creativity.

But this dynamic can also work conversely. People need recognition and may be willing to give the “humble speech” (“I couldn’t do this kind of thing alone”) for a while, but eventually that wears out. It’s not wrong to take pride in one’s work and expect the credentials that enable one’s personal growth to propel success (#AynRand, #AtlasShrugged, #TheFountainhead). Good managers know how to guide talent and give a reward of greater responsibility to high achievers, but those who are threatened eventually get consumed by it.

The Struggle Begins
And to that end, there was a small thorn in Richard’s side. One of his specialists, Maxwell, had a real knack for contracts, ensuring that all provisions were met, all exceptions were noted, and all change orders were thoroughly validated. He was a bit unorthodox in his methods, however, and it made Richard uneasy. He simply could not control Max, and it didn’t seem that the guy would ever play “team ball.” Max wasn’t rebellious, and he did strongly support and work with others on the team, but his unique personality and non-standard ways threatened Richard. He simply couldn’t see Max as his creative equal. He had to be better, know more, and achieve more. Had Max merely enjoyed his individuality and let it work for the betterment of the team, all would have been fine, but Richard needed to “own” him, direct him, and remain in charge. So Max’s great ideas were often left behind, chalked up as silly and not even possible, and they lay there and died as a victim of Richard’s ego and micro-managing habits.

Max had Richard over a barrel, too. Try as he might, Richard was not good with contract details, so in meetings with clients, in which such details were challenged, he had no choice but to defer to Max. One time, however, Richard spoke so dismissively to Max during a client meeting that when the tough questions came later in the session, Max left Richard to twist in the wind. At the last minute, Max swept in and saved Richard from total embarrassment, but the message was clear that Max was tiring of this interference. His face wore a sign that said, “Let me be me and give me credit for what I bring to the table.” Therefore, unlike all other staff members, Richard tried to placate Max’s need for growth and advancement by giving him a lot of public recognition and credit. But Max was a man of principle. He didn’t want to take a bow; he wanted advancement and greater responsibility, and Richard could not allow him to rise past himself, so he continued to control Max’s unique abilities, and the company suffered for it.

A Crumbling Team
And yes, you guessed it. Resentment began to build with Max’s pats on the back, and staff members began to rebel. Richard’s carefully guarded, team-only-mindset began to backfire. All that control, that mission direction, that tamping down of any agenda other than his own was becoming a common topic of discussion, and Richard’s once-shining star began to dim and fall.

Micro-management is a habit that is set to fail from the beginning. When you hire talented, capable people and immediately try to cap the skills that made them stand out, it is a ticking time bomb. How many quarterbacks have gone to the NFL as a rookie after slinging the ball creatively through college, only to wind up with a wolfpack of coaches trying to “fix his game” (#Bernie Kosar, #DougFlutie, #JimMcMahon, #BrettFavre)? Only when the team shows a constant ability to lose do coaches take the bridle off and let the quarterback play his game. And the player thrives, bringing the whole team up.

Grow Together
Folks, here it is in one sentence: Control is an illusion.

  • The kid borrowing your car who promises not to speed while driving

  • The promiscuous husband about to leave on a five-day company conference

  • The employee who stands there nodding as you tell him he needs to do it your way

  • The dog that should stay off the couch

  • The child who can keep his Halloween candy in his room if he promises he will only eat one piece a day

  • The new owner of a BB gun who swears he will only shoot paper targets instead of birds and squirrels.

Come on, people! Are you delusional enough to think these folks are really going to do what you say, or are they confidently going forward and do what they want?

The characters of Richard and Maxwell exist on paper for the purpose of this story, but I know for sure that, as you were reading this, you were dropping in names and personalities in your world, nodding your head, and waiting for them to get their due. It’s a shame really, but it is a fact. Those with power over you should use it to help you develop, not to contain or be threatened by you. The only control any individual has over any other individual is to sincerely compliment their abilities and ask them to share their talents and contribute to something you think is important. A good example of this is a painter who employs an orchestral quintet to play at his art festival because he believes their talented performance will enhance his artwork and people’s interpretation. There’s mutual gain through mutual respect.

Folks, it’s not hard to find the ones who do it right. They are the CEOs, team managers, orchestra conductors, entrepreneurs, and leaders who are known as “the very best.”

Ron Ciancutti worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He is now retired. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at ron@northstarpubs.com.