Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Pietersen Effect: The Flawed Genius in Your Organisation

When I was in my late twenties, I worked in a school of nursing in Sydney as a nurse educator. Nursing, at the time, was still taught in an apprenticeship system and had yet to move into universities. One day, after I had been there about six months, I was summoned to the head of the school’s office. After a few pleasantries she told me, relatively gently as I recall, that the only reason that I had not been sent packing was that this was a large school with a large number of educators and that my effect could be somewhat distilled.

I was rather shocked at this piece of news and went away a bit miffed, feeling a mixture of hurt and narcissistic anger: perhaps there is no difference between the two. It did, however, cause me to rethink some of my behavior, in the school at least. When I came to a higher level of understanding I realized that my head of school may have been very generous in giving me another chance. She acknowledged that I was creative but that there was a cost to this. I am pretty sure I was obnoxious and some say that hasn’t changed much. I was certainly enthusiastic and wanted to try new things, to move forward, to change the world. But my self-preoccupation, my opinionated self, and lack of respect for others meant that I trod on a lot of toes. Hopefully, at a now more advanced age my enthusiasm hasn’t waned but my modus operandi has. Incidentally, before we move on let me make it clear I am not making a claim to being a flawed genius: flawed yes, genius no.

For those who don’t know him Kevin Pietersen is an English cricketer who played for his country until this year. When he was sacked from the team he was their best batsman by a country mile, was responsible for beating India in India almost single handedly and played a huge role in winning and retaining the Ashes against Australia a couple of years ago. The reasons for his sacking have not been spelled out in detail but it obviously had a lot to do with his attitude, his very difficult personality and that he did not toe the line like the rest of the team. He almost certainly was in conflict with the captain and team management.

There are many other examples of the flawed genius in sport-Zidane, Schumacher, Best, Gascoisgne, Piggott, Higgins, Woods: the list is long. There are lots of non-sporting ones too: Van Goh, Churchill,  McArthur, Elgar. In fact there are lots of highly talented people who are a problem to those around them. There may be one in your organization.

One of the issues for leaders in organisations is how to manage these talented people who can give so much but who can cause so much trouble. According to Dan Gilbert (TED talks psychologist) and the work of 18th century polymath Daniel Bernoulli it may well end up being a decision based on value. That is, what is the value of potential future benefit given the potential risk. The point of Gilbert’s talk is that humans are notoriously bad at assessing probability and our decisions are affected by all sorts of psychological variables.

My experience is that talented people are often lost to organisations because their leaders give up on them a little too easily, they are dismissed as fools, ignored, sidelined or even sent packing. People who are different are easy to ignore especially of they are telling you things that you don’t want to hear, belling the cat perhaps, innovative, creative and seeing the world differently.

Presumably, if the person is a raging psychopath, highly narcissistic or in possession of another severe personality disorder that you have managed to recognize (if you are lucky) then the decision is relatively easy. If the risk is too high, the damage too massive, and future potential for more disaster is high it is a bit of a no-brainer. That is, as long as we don’t make this decision too precipitously.

But what is the best course of action when the person is a bit difficult, doesn’t always toe the line, behaves differently to the rest of the group, doesn’t follow group norms all the time? Maybe there is a bit of a personality clash with you, the leader, who likes a more orderly world.

In my case, the boss was able to have a relatively blunt conversation with me in which she praised my attributes but let me know I had breached boundaries. For some reason the advice took root. Change, though, is not always that easy. Our cognitive schema or mental models get in the way of modifying well-worn habits, ways of viewing the world and our thinking. It might take: a bit of persistence; a think skin; perhaps some outside help; good use of the performance management system but not in a draconian way; and perhaps a rearranging of circumstances or environment. Certainly, careful thought needs to be given to a plan of action.

And, for you flawed geniuses out there, when you are given the message that you need to modify your behavior, perhaps you should listen and rethink, not what you are doing but how you are going about it. Feedback is the best medicine.