Enter the Matrix: Take the red pill to see business reality

The trick is to have the awareness of the in-built programming, combined with the curiosity and courage to question fundamental assumptions.

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Take the red pill or the blue pill? This is the choice faced by Neo [played by Keanu Reeves] in the 1999 cult film, The Matrix in the famous ‘red pill scene’. Neo discovers he has been inhabiting a dream world, the life he has been living is an elaborate hallucination. Neo has to choose whether to continue to keep living a delusion or wake up to reality.

At the risk of over-dramatising, perhaps managers at times are living in a dream world. Not seeing both the opportunities placed in front of them and the hard realities of problems, that can’t be avoided. One bitter pill to swallow is that bad bosses torment good staff.

Managers often risk seeing things in a binary, ‘yes or no’, ‘black and white’ way. Perhaps the greatest serial killer of business is the failure to adapt, the inability to evolve. There is an understandable desire to be under the illusion that one can freeze the moment, in a reality of constant change.

Accountants do this all the time when they report on the company’s position as at 31 December 2023. Yet, like everything else, a financial position is constantly in flux, hence the rise of Power BI-like dashboards, presenting the financial position on a closer to real-time basis. In our ‘always on’ hyper-connected world, too many people are under the misconception that they have a direct line to ‘the truth’.

More emotional than rational

Managers believe that they are dispassionate, able to make considered rational decisions. Yet the rational economic person described in the course, Economics 101 is a myth. Research in behavioural economics indicates captains of industry often make decisions more ruled by, an almost primitive emotion, rather than some hard analytical diagnosis of the facts.

Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize for economics pointed this out in his landmark book, Thinking Fast and Slow showing how as a survival mechanism we tend to form fast judgements in microseconds, that may in retrospect be suspect. Our brain’s operating system has an in built default mechanism to state, the equivalent of “I am always right”. Often correct, it at times can be fatally wrong. The trick is to have the awareness of the in-built programming, combined with the curiosity and courage to question fundamental assumptions.

Excuse the drama, but in The Matrix, Morpheus [played by Laurence Fishburne] says: “You are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage, into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch – a prison of your mind.” Truth is we all like our minds, and identify the mind with who we are. In contrast, others are able to create some distance saying, we are not our minds.

When faced with a ‘yes or no’ decision, effective managers tend to not see things in a binary fashion, but instead look at the merits, the pros and cons of each possibility, and aim to chart out a ‘win – win’ middle ground.

Bitter pill of a bad boss

One of the most bitter pills to swallow is hating one’s job, hating one's boss. "People leave managers, not companies," write the authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. "So much money has been thrown at the challenge of keeping good people - in the form of better pay, better perks and better training - when, in the end, turnover is mostly a manager issue." If you have a turnover problem, look first to your supervisors and managers. Are they driving people away?

Beyond a point, an employee's primary need has less to do with money, and more to do with how he's treated and how valued he feels. Much of this depends directly on the immediate manager. And yet, bad bosses seem to happen to good people everywhere.

A Fortune magazine survey some years ago found that nearly 75 percent of employees have suffered at the hands of difficult superiors. You can leave one job to find - you guessed it, another wolf in a fancy suit in the next one.

One of the largest studies undertaken by the Gallup Organisation surveyed over a million employees and 80,000 managers and was published in the book: First Break All The Rules. It came up with this surprising finding: If you're losing good people, first look to their immediate supervisor.

More than any other single reason, he (or she) is the reason people stay and thrive in an organization. And, they are the reason why they quit, taking their knowledge, experience and contacts with them. Often, straight to the competition.

Delusion, or a work-life of feeling you belong and insight? In the end, Neo chooses the red pill, back to a reality of present-moment awareness.

David is a director at aCatalyst Consulting | [email protected]

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