Before spending a minute with Ken Blanchard or taking one step with Stephen Covey, sneak quietly into your child's room after she has snuggled in for the night and steal her copy of Margery Williams' classic, The Velveteen Rabbit -- Or How Toys Become Real. Then prepare to learn the only thing you need to know to be a better manager or employee.
Rabbit is a simple toy, fat and bunchy, and stuffed with sawdust. As he nervously surveys his new surroundings, he encounters the mechanical toys, who consider themselves "very superior, and looked down upon every one else . and pretended they were real." The model boat "never missed an opportunity of referring to his rigging in technical terms." The jointed wooden lion built by the disabled veterans "put on airs and pretended he was connected with government."
In such company, Rabbit feels very plain and isolated. But, on the far side of the nursery, away from the tin soldiers, stands the scruffy and threadbare Skin Horse, to whom Rabbit finds himself powerfully drawn. There is something different about Skin Horse that makes all the other toys respect him, something Rabbit wants, something . real.
"What is REAL?" Rabbit asks Skin Horse one day.
Great question, isn't it? Have you ever wondered about the genuineness of communication in your work environment? We all know the engineer or specialist who responds with jargon rather than plainly answering a question, or managers who use their positions to sidestep blame rather than admit to simple mistakes. Look at the typical union negotiation. Each player dons the appropriate costume -- employee, union representative, management -- and acts out the role with the finesse of the finest Shakespearean actor.
Why are people who communicate honestly outside of work so quick to masquerade at work?
Skin Horse knows that fearful people can never be real, those who "break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept." Are you a fearful manager who breaks easily when employees with sharp edges question your leadership? Are you an employee whom everyone must tiptoe around? Real communication can't occur in that nursery room environment.
Real communication occurs only where there is genuine caring -- that warm and fuzzy word that drives many managers up the wall. It's incredible that something which all of us consider of prime importance in all our other relationships often is treated with disdain in our workplace. But, in order to drive out fear, as Deming said, and allow employees to be real, you must have a caring environment.
Imagine team members who so genuinely value each others' opinions, or a manager who has so much respect for his or her employees, that it's impossible to fear making a mistake or bad management decision.
"By the time you are Real," Skin Horse answers Rabbit, "most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly."
The most effective manager I've ever known was also the most Real. When Darrel Weichenthal, an ex-IBMer, showed up at our small Silicon Valley electronics firm in his blue three-piece suit, we all inwardly groaned. But we very quickly discovered that what made Weichenthal such an extremely forceful and effective manager was that he commanded respect by commanding with respect. He cared about his employees. He gave honest praise when it was due, constructive criticism when it was required and was the first to admit when he was wrong. He became a mentor for young managers and an example of servant leadership before the term became a cliché. Darrel's secret weapon was to be himself. He didn't walk the talk -- anyone can do that. He was the talk. Only fearless people can do that, and it leads to fearlessness in those around them. That's the magic of Real.
We all need to take a reality check at times. Am I speaking my mind honestly but with respect for the listener? Do I truly care about helping my boss, employee or co-worker do a better job? Or am I just going through the motions?
Felix Grant, a good friend of mine, recently volunteered at an exhibition of puppet art. One exhibit, "Miss Moody," featured a life-sized puppet of an old woman asleep in an armchair who chuckled and talked in her sleep when anyone stepped on the carpet around her.
"One little girl came in with her parents, at a time when the place was otherwise empty," recalls Felix. "Once she had discovered Miss Moody, she squatted in front of her for about 10 minutes, watching as Miss Moody moved and chuckled to herself. Then she asked, 'Are you Real?'
"She didn't get a reply, of course. She waited about a minute, then asked again, 'Are you Real?'
"She tried the question about a dozen times. Then she gave up and moved away. As she turned, she saw me sitting at the desk and came across. Standing in front of me, she asked the same question: 'Are you Real?'
" 'Yes,' I said. 'I'm real.'
"She looked at me silently for a long few seconds, then asked, 'How can I know?' "
About the author
Dirk Dusharme is technology editor of Quality Digest.