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It doesn't matter if you are stupid

By Dr Patrick Tissington on Jul 26, 10 08:00 AM in Enterprise

Many many years ago I served in the British Army. This is something I am extremely proud of on many levels. The people I served with were extraordinary; capable of withstanding the most astonishing hardship and resourceful in ways that frankly civilians could never imagine. With the odd exception. Two soldiers from a unit based with us were arrested for armed robbery. They had thought through the raid on a petrol station quite thoroughly - they wore overalls, face masks and had a replica firearm. When they were arrested, they were mystified as to how they had been caught so easily. Well, said the police officer, perhaps you shouldn't have worn overalls with your name badge on. There are so many stories of rubbish criminals and it is sometimes fun to hear about them. But I think there is perhaps a serious lesson amongst it all.

Donald Rumsfeld was famous for saying something like :

"There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."

This is usually used as a form of derision and whilst I would never try to defend Rumsfeld's appalling record, actually this is an expression used in engineering a great deal. I studied for my doctorate at Aberdeen University which has extremely well developed links with the oil business and recall being in a lecture given by a professor of geology who used the expression to illustrate how he decided where recommend drilling for oil. Of course the problem with the expression is what do you do when you don't know that you don't know? In my example, the pair concerned didn't know they would be pathetic thieves. Perhaps they lacked the self-reflection to be able to get past their desperation for cash in the last week before payday. I recently watched an episode of DIY SOS where a decent, intelligent man had put his family through years of misery because he honestly seemed to think he could do the building work on their house himself. When he was made redundant, he didn't go back to work, just carried on making a complete hash of the house for seven years! The high point of the programme was the presented saying to the man, "you're great, you have a lovely family, they love you. Now for God's sake go back to work and get someone else to do the building work."

I guess my point this week is that we all have our weaknesses. But if this weakness is that we lack self-reflection, it can be disastrous.

I think we have all seen colleagues with similar blind spots. Naturally I do not come across these things in my present job at Aston University (!) but in previous employment I can think of people who thought they were brilliant speakers so took every opportunity to give "inspirational" talks, or those who believed the entire success of the department was down to them (failures were other people of course), those who were so dire at their job they were promoted to a place where they couldn't do as much harm. Or the worst crime - those who thought they had a crazy whacky sense of humour. When I once had one of those as my boss, I thanked God every day for the strict gun control laws in this country because there were times when... The really funny thing though is it almost wouldn't matter if I named the business this person worked in. He had so little self-reflection ability, he wouldn't recognise himself. So, it doesn't matter all that much if we are bad at something, if we (a) realise we are bad at it and (b) do something about it, we will be fine.

So, what can we do? It's pretty simple really - always take the feedback. Look for it all the time - not in a needy way but genuinely and in detail. Don't ask how well you are doing, ask how you can do things differently. Always look to change the way you do things even slightly. And demonstrate to your team that you do listen and the change things. Once people see you are receptive to criticism, you will get credit for it and receive feedback more honestly - which is the best form of course. Sometimes the feedback will be painful but this is one of the many situations where an old military expression is definitely worth remembering - no pain, no gain.

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