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Posted on: Sunday, 24 January 2010 by Rajiv Popat

As managers, leaders or whatever it is that we like to call ourselves, we have a tendency to think of ourselves as mentors, helpers and protectors of people who work with us.

As a part of this tendency, it is but natural to get tempted to help your team member change himself every time you see a fault or a weakness in the person. After all, if you can push hard enough the person might change, improve and grow to be a better individual.

If you are a young and budding manager, chances are that every once in a while you find yourself spending time in a one-on-one with a person in your team. You  find yourself trying to mentor him, help him give up a weakness or fix a basic problem in his character.

Then as months go by, you learn that all you did with the person in that one on one was that you wasted his time and you wasted your own time.

As you grow older, you tend to implicitly and unknowingly learn the cardinal rule of management - people do not change their basic traits and character over time.

Markus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, describe this basic rule of management in their book First break all the rules, using a simple research on neuroscience:

At birth the child's brain contains one hundred billion neurons, more brain cells then there are stars on the Milky Way. These cells will grow and die regularly throughout the child's life, but their number will remain roughly the same. These cells are the raw material of the mind. But they are not the mind. The mind of the child lives between these cells. In the connections between the cells. In the synapses.

During the first fifteen years of life, the carving of these synaptic connections is where the drama unfolds.

From the day she was born, the child's mind begins to reach out, aggressively, exuberantly. Beginning at the center of the brain, every neuron sends out thousands and thousands of signals.

They are trying to talk to one another, to communicate, to make a connection. Imagine everyone that is alive today simultaneously trying to  get in touch with 150,000 other people and you will get some idea of the wonderful scale, complexity, and vitality of the young mind.

By the time the child reaches her third birthday the number of connections made is colossal - up to fifteen thousand synaptic connections for each of it's one hundred billion neurons. 

But this is too many. She is overloaded with the volume whirling around inside her head. She needs to make sense of it all. Her sense. So during the next ten years or so, her brain refines and focuses on its network of connections. The stronger synaptic connections become stronger still. The weaker ones wither away.

Dr. Harry Chugani, professor of neurology at Wayne State University Medical School, likens the pruning process to a highway system:

"Roads with the most traffic get widened. The ones that re rarely used fall into disrepair."

If she ends up with a four-lane highway for empathy, she will feel every emotion around her as though it were her own. By contrast, if she has a wasteland for empathy, she will be emotionally blind, forever saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person - not out of malice, but simply out of an inability to pick up the frequency of the emotional signals being sent.

The carving for these pathways is the carving of her character. Neuroscience is telling us that beyond her mid-teens, there is a limit to how much of her character she can recarve.

Neuroscience confirms what great managers know. Her filter, and the recurring patterns of behavior that it creates, is enduring. In the most important ways she is permanently, wonderfully, unique.

So are you. And, of course, so are the people you hire.

Your job as a leader is to best utilize the strengths and if possible even harness the weaknesses of your team members. It is not to try to fix every single weaknesses or to eradicate every fault out in your team. People with high degree of emotional attachment being moved over to PR departments and flourishing there is one simple and classic example. Keep your eyes open and you will find multiple others.

You might be able to teach people new skills and technology, but if you are trying to teach someone how he can feel empathy towards others, or why he should be lying less, you are probably wasting his time and your time.

Every time you find an issue with the basic trait or character of a particular individual, trying to fix the issue is a waste of everyone's time. Hoping that you will be able to fix the weakness is hoping for too much. If glaring issues exist with an individuals personality, character or basic trait and you believe that these issues will be a problem in letting him flourish in his work, you might want to:

  1. Consider not hiring the individual if you can (unless of-course you can find a different role where he fits really well).
  2. If you are stuck with an individual, you have spent umpteen numbers of hours trying to fix a problem and your organization lacks another role where he fits, asking a person to leave your organization might be an option. It is hard, but most veteran managers will tell you that you are a management virgin till you have done this at-least once.
  3. Finding him a role where he can utilize his weaknesses and turn those into his strengths - if you can do this, you can pat yourself on your back, because this dear reader, is the biggest 'help' you can extend to someone. This is what leadership is all about.

Remember, next time you see someone in your team with a weakness in one or more of his basic traits, do not focus on trying to fix the weakness. Instead, focus on finding him a role where he can utilize his weaknesses and turn those into his strengths.

I wish you good luck.