Forget your management jargon. Why the key to success is listening, not moulding

The other day my boss told me ‘the’ NASA cleaner story. It’s some kind of management urban legend, apparently. He loves telling stories, which, to be fair, is a breath of fresh air compared with the last guy. The story goes…

The president of the United States (one from ages ago – sorry, I’m no good with names/retaining important information) visited NASA. He does his tour and that and then he goes to the loo (at which point I ask myself why my boss is making me imagine a man having a wee *curiousface*). Then he sees the cleaner and asks him about himself and what does he do. The cleaner replies, coolly, ‘I’m helping send a man to the moon.’

An enthusiastic convert is present while I am told this story, so I feel the weight of expectation as we hit the punchline. Boss and convert are very excited. I manage to weave in my ‘oh wowwww’ and fake laugh.

As the moral of the story became apparent to me, I was genuinely amazed. But not for NASA’s incredible feat of team-building; rather for the naivety of my manager. He actually wants to get all of us, at our various levels of juniority, to believe that we’re doing something meaningful; to believe that our aims are his aims. Is this man for real? Or does he want us to just be able reel this stuff off on demand, like parrots, and despite ourselves?

He thinks we are the blank canvas of the proletariat

I am a bit riled. His aims cannot be our aims because between us and him are twenty or so other egos. Does he not realise how easily bad or mad managers conceal themselves in the strata beneath? They may appear perfectly competent. They may smile sweetly and chit chat. We should not be the focus for change. We are not his putty to be moulded. We are in fact possible victims of neglect.

I also feel patronised. And there is certainly a dimension of class (prejudice) here. I fear he thinks we are the blank canvas of the proletariat. And he can’t even imagine himself in our shoes and almost doesn’t see us as full people.

I know it’s easier said than done, but I wish he could turn his attention to our experiences, to learn from them. If he wants us on board the way to do it is to make our lives more bearable. That’s how to gain our respect and passion. Yes, he must beware the floodgates or he will be hit with a chaotic sh*tstorm of gripes and grudges, big and small, trivial and genuine.

Even if he doesn’t actually do anything, if he could just have one eye open, watching out for us, looking for the signs and signals, listening between the lines. If you’re switched on to it, the evidence is everywhere: in people’s strained faces; when they work late day after day; office conversations overheard.

I can see that he is really an insecure person and I shouldn’t be too harsh. He would like to believe that we are happy in our jobs. That counts for something. He puts himself out there with his bold rhetoric, but he wants approval in return. I guess at the end of the day, he’s only human. And it could always be worse.