It Matters What Your People Think

key-in-heads-Andre van HeerdenEvery business I have ever been called in to consult on matters of leadership, teamwork, and performance has had essentially the same malady: management wants employees to be more enthusiastic, hard-working, and cooperative, without really understanding what they think. The content of employee’s minds determines the nature of their behavior, and if such content is destitute, deceived, distorted, disengaged, or deficient in any other way, enthusiasm, hard work, and cooperation will remain a pipe dream.

Ironically, the constant surveillance and interminable data-collection that characterizes the consumer society seems to have left management more out of touch with what people think than ever. This fact becomes even more curious when one factors in fifty years of dumbing down driven by political correctness, state schooling, and the media that has produced a shallowness of mind one might expect to be easy to read.

Public opinion is obviously significant in democratic politics, but employee opinion, for the most part, carries little official weight in business, as managers are not usually elected. Yet what people think adds up to the corporate culture, and a dysfunctional culture will inevitably produce dysfunctional teamwork and performance. It matters what your people think.

Everyone is a philosopher, because everyone thinks about what happens in their lives, and the meaning of those events. Sadly, not everyone is a competent philosopher. Thinking one’s way to valid conclusions requires an ever-expanding general knowledge that leads one to understand the concepts of our experience, provides one with facts about which we make judgments, and encourages one to reason about the causes of the things we experience.

So the constant growth of knowledge boosts the quality of one’s thinking. Yet how many managers can count on their employees to think accurately, creatively, and positively about the business? More to the point, do they even want to know what employees think? The comparison with public opinion is apposite, especially since public opinion remains a key factor in brand development.

The quality of any democracy depends on the intellectual effort made by each and every citizen. Democracy is shaped by what people think, and it hardly needs noting that most democracies today are dysfunctional, often alarmingly so – consider only the low voter turnout in elections. The anti-intellectualism promoted by state schooling and the media indicates that many political and commercial interests are intent on manipulating culture to promote their own ends. And the implications for leaders in the business world are ominous.

For better or worse, politicians, business leaders, academia, the media, as well as parents and teachers more obviously, have not only the means but also an obligation to influence what people think. The critical question is: to whom do they owe that obligation? If it is not to truth, then it can only be to some ideological agenda or other, which is by definition a distortion of the truth, and what they purvey can only be propaganda. In short, they can only be seen as misleaders.

Leaders shape culture, i.e. they shape what people think. If they do not do this, then they have ceased to lead, and words like vision, mission, strategy, corporate culture, and the like, become either deceitful or meaningless. Once again, the obligation to truth is essential for leadership to stand and deliver. Moreover, there are plenty of unscrupulous agents willing to fill the breach when leaders abdicate their responsibility.

Inevitably, in this age of deceit, the postmodern sophists will retreat behind the shabby but perennially popular nihilist slogan: “What is truth?”That question leads swiftly to the attitude adopted by Hitler when he said: “The winner will never be asked if he told the truth.”

Truth is reality, the way things are. And knowledge can only be truth; because having knowledge means knowing reality, that which is and that which is not. If you have information that is not true, you do not have knowledge, only nonsense.

As Einstein pointed out in wonder, the human intellect, for all its limitations, is capable of comprehending reality. If growing into truth is not the central purpose of humanity, neither science, nor philosophy, nor law, nor education can have any meaning at all. Yet the war against truth has always been around, as is illustrated by Plato’s debates with the Sophists, who in thoroughly modern fashion, were motivated by utility rather than truth.

Plato toiled more than fifty years to pin down what made the Sophists so dangerous. In a final dialogue, he showed how they set out to manufacture a fictitious reality. This Platonic nightmare has greater relevance today than ever as too many politicians and business people construct the fictions they hope will feather their nests, regardless of collateral damage.

Public opinion has been impoverished because people no longer know where to find the truth. Worse still, most people are not even inclined to look for it, deceived and manipulated as they are into going along with the fictitious reality created by the power-mongers through the corruption of language.

Plato insisted on three principles: first, a meaningful human life requires an understanding of things as they actually are, and living in accordance with this reality; secondly, the potential of a person can only be brought to fruition by access and receptivity to truth, and society can only be sustained by a commitment to truth; and thirdly, the truth lives and grows naturally where there is free and open communication. Truth has to be promoted in dialogue, because its habitat is language, or the word.

Business leaders need to think long and hard on the implications this has in the workplace where disillusionment, demoralization, and disengagement are the reigning realities.

So what should people in any business know in order that they might think productively about the contribution required of them? At the very least, the following:

  • The corporate vision aims at the good of all, including the wider community
  • Making the vision happen depends on achieving clearly specified goals along the way
  • This will require dedicated teamwork and constantly growing personal excellence
  • Personal development demands a balanced lifestyle and healthy relationships
  • This in turn requires practical wisdom, courage, self-control, and a sense of justice
  • These virtues depend on personal honesty and respect for the dignity of others
  • Customer satisfaction is the responsibility of all, again demanding personal integrity
  • Reading history and classic literature is the best way to improve one’s ability to think
  • Wisdom grows from expanding knowledge and experience, and living the virtues.

In my experience, leaders from most cultures readily embrace these principles and their far-reaching implications. It is the misleaders and the cynics who hedge and carp and unleash the deluge of Sophist deceit. Their present ascendency explains the sense of hopelessness so common in the workplace and the polling booth.

Originally published on Bizcatalyst360



Andre van Heerden

Andre van Heerden

Andre van Heerden heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership: Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere. He leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.

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