“People at all levels are irrational beings”

Interview published in Human Resources Magazine, June-July 2012.

Many challenges in families and businesses are similar. The well-known bestselling author and therapist Jesper Juul about the power of relationships.

1. Mr. Juul, is the leadership in crisis? Recently we’ve been reading a lot about managers who are not able to inspire their employees, and parents who are overwhelmed. What’s going on?

Within less than a generation 3 things have changed dramatically:

1: The old coherent values do not exist anymore and since they were basically based on the needs of the industrial society (and the wishes of the church) for people to be obedient the insecurity connected with leadership is naturally big.

2: Children grow up with a global perspective and with the knowledge that almost any future of their own choice is possible.

3: Democracy has finally reached companies as well as families and thus the recognition of the individual human being. This requires leaders to take not only themselves as human beings seriously but also their employees. This means that they have to practice principles and values that are often contradictory to the ones they were brought up/educated to honor.

2. According to certain studies managers fail especially in terms of inter-personal relationship. Why?

I think it is because they feel safe with the rules of superficial, social relationships and have no experience with a more personal way of relating. Maybe they also confuse the personal with the private, and find it difficult or dangerous to risk being vulnerable. Throughout our history people with power have always tried to appear invulnerable which of course effectively cut them off from others and made them lonely. Even loneliness was made a virtue.

3. Where are the parallels to the situation in the family?

There are many! Today’s parents also have great difficulties or are directly opposed to the idea of making themselves vulnerable in front of their children. The conflict escalates because children are no more reduced to nor satisfied with merely role-playing.

4. Mr. Juul don’t you agree that we expect too much from managers? Their teams have to perform, meaning has to be conveyed. While they are expected to improve their employees’ performance, managers need to increase their own as well?

I don’t know if it is too much. It is what it is and we were all ill prepared for this to happen. Teachers find themselves in similar situations and burn out and so does parents. The American comedian Groucho Marx was once asked, „How do you feel about sex, Mr. Marx?“ His answer was, „I believe it has come to stay“. A very wise answer as we now know. It’s the same here: the days of all mighty leaders/owners without empathy and forever submissive workers are over in our part of the world.

5. Why does the authoritative based leadership no longer work, either for businesses or families?

Because the costs in the form of lost human dignity are far too high for modern man to accept. It is actually a mistake to claim that it once worked. It was not the authoritarian leaders that made it work, it was the need of their employees and their willingness to submit that made it work. It worked – so to speak – only because the employees were brought up in families with a similar kind of leadership and knew of no alternatives. For a short while in history this regime created great financial results for the companies but the sum of humiliation, bad health, destroyed families and unhappy women and men was far too high to be acceptable when alternatives became thinkable and visible.

6. Do we still need leadership? Maybe it will increasingly be replaced by the selforganization?

I think that is what we will experience more and more, but that is leadership in the form of planning and control. Every organization needs leadership – i.e. leaders who are responsible for the culture, the values and the quality of communication, which is already the factors that young employees prefer over the size of their paycheck.

7. You once spoke about the „Power of Relationship“. What do you mean by that?

In any group where some people or one person have more power than others the ones in power are responsible for the quality of relating/communicating. This is a systemic fact. In a destructive culture with poor communication and/or lack of personal recognition employees can do very little to balance the influence of bad leadership.

8. You say that taking care of relations is the key for successful leadership. This may be easier in families than at companies. Often managers barely have the time to get to know their staff. Don’t you expect too much?

I’m not demanding this. I’m just pointing it out. It is however a common misconception that high quality relating takes more time than bad. We are not talking about establishing friendships between leaders and those they lead but about adding as much quality as you can tot the brief meetings and encounters you have with people. Medical doctors are only just discovering, how much healing impact this has on their patients, just as managers will experience that it has a positive influence on numbers and figures in their annual budget reports.

9. To what extent do you think good leadership has to do with being a role model?

It has already been obvious for many years that the behavior of the top people reflects on the behavior on the next levels, so the behavior of leaders determine to a large degree how employees are met by their immediate leader and how they meet customers for instance. What is obvious at the moment is the lack of good role models for young entrepreneurs and executives – very much like the lack of good role models for young fathers.

10. You advise parents to have more confidence in their children and executives to trust their employees more. But isn’t it so that in families there’s much more firm basis for establishing that trust?

Yes, that is one way of putting it and it is certainly true. The essential difference is that the trust of parents is decisive for how children develop their personalities, whereas the trust of leaders is an important factor in the productivity, creativity and spirit of employees. We are not talking about blind faith but about a corporate culture that is based more on trust and encouragement than control and formalized “expectations”. This is what so many leaders have discovered during the past decade through “coaching”, which is so far only accessible for the top people. The rest of corporate population must depend on their leaders to get similar support.

11. Which insights may a leader, by being a parent, take with him – and vice versa?

What we hear from especially young fathers and leaders today is that engaging in fatherhood beyond the role of obedient helpers provides them with interpersonal skills that they would otherwise have to achieve in seminars and workshops and of course personal experience over many years. The possibility for fathers to spend time with their babies and toddlers is probably the best investment any organization can make in the quality of their future leadership.

12. Why is it reasonable for a company to have employees with children?

I think that all available studies show, that employees living in a partnership or family are scoring high on qualities that organizations want: stability, responsibility, dedication and health. This is why it would be wise for many more companies as well as public organizations to embrace the fact that their employees have families instead of regarding for instance emotional crisis, a sick child or a teenager in serious trouble as competition. The wiser choice is to accept that all of these “time consuming” events in family life have great educational values on all levels and that the owners or board of directors decide to provide their employees with support and inspiration instead of bad conscience.

13. You have once said that leadership needs conflicts – especially at companies. But doesn’t that mean that employees will come as second best towards their leaders? And don’t conflicts cause infringements? What is wrong about having a harmonious working relationship?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that but the art of coexistence and collaboration is not about creating harmony. It is about knowing what to do when harmony no longer prevails. It is also true that many conflicts between chiefs and employees are of a more political nature – which is why both parties have their organizations. There are however lots of conflicts among co-workers as well as between leaders and those that they are leading that cannot be solved by political or legal means. Intervening in these conflicts, which should be very high on the agenda for every HR-department, requires empathy and interpersonal skills far beyond being nice, polite and politically correct. These conflicts are influencing commitment, responsibility, creativity and productivity of sometime whole departments and they have many secondary effects that are costly for the company as well. The less qualified the parents/leaders are the more destructive the conflicts will be for everybody involved. Men and women at all levels are irrational beings. That is their quality and what ultimately distinguishes them from robots.

 

Interview by Jan C. Weilbacher

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