When little children don’t want to hear what they are being told, they put their hands over their ears and repeat, “I’m not listening” to further drown out the unwanted message. Such behavior is not very charming in children and much less so in adults, particularly in people who hold important positions.
Recently I was speaking with the executive director of a company I do business with. When she lamented the high turnover rate among her employees, I said I had reason to believe that poor morale was a cause, adding that I knew of one opportunity to raise morale that she had missed. I continued as follows: “When you took your current position several months ago, you announced that you were going to change the company’s uniforms and went on to explain the color and style you had chosen. You could have handled it differently . . .”
At this point she interrupted me and began defending her actions. When I tried to resume—“As I was saying”—she interrupted again. I then said, “May I explain what I believe would have been a better way . . .” She answered with firmness, “No,” and walked away from me.
The advice I had wanted to offer but that she refused to hear was this: “Instead of making your decision alone, you could have asked your employees for their ideas about the color and style of the uniforms and taken their responses under advisement. Doing so would have suggested that you respect them and value their opinions. And that would have had a positive affect on their morale.”
My reaction to her childish behavior was mixed. I was offended by her rudeness, but I was also saddened that she missed an opportunity to receive an idea that would have helped solve her employee turnover problem. I also couldn’t help wondering how many other problems she was unable to solve because of her habit of shutting out ideas other than her own.
Unfortunately, her behavior is not uncommon. An increasing number of people, including ones in high places, behave similarly. This behavior is partly explained by the general human tendency to be wary of new ideas. But that tendency has lessened over the centuries. In olden times, the bearers of bad tidings literally lost their heads.
So what explains the resurgence of refusing to listen to others? I am convinced it is the ego-stroking that has been prevalent in our culture for several decades. At least two generations of Americans have grown up believing that their opinion is right simply because it is their opinion, that maintaining self-esteem is more important than learning, and that the philosophy contained in the song “I Did It My Way” is a good guide to living. (Lovely song, especially Sinatra’s rendition, but a foolish philosophy.)
Virtually every religion condemns such self-adulation, as do most secular philosophies. They warn that it prevents us from achieving knowledge and wisdom. For example the Bible says, “there is more hope for a fool” than for “a man wise in his own eyes.” (Proverbs 26:12). It also warns in harsher terms of the sad cycle to which foolishness leads: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.” (Proverbs 26:11)
There’s also a practical argument against having an inflated self-image. Such an image is almost impossible to live up to, and those who try to do so create a double dilemma—turning off other people with the air of arrogance they project, and having to cope with the insecurity that comes when everyday reality challenges their self-image.
Of course, there is an antidote to self-adulation—a good dose of humility. I sincerely hope my executive acquaintance comes to that realization, though I’m not betting on her doing so.
Copyright © 2014 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved
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