4 April 2020
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Ego is a dirty word, sometimes -

I’ve often tried to work out why someone as smart as Malcolm Turnbull was not able to hold on to his gig? Sure, there were lots of challenges he had to deal with but he and the current PM, Scott Morrison (as Treasurer) certainly got the economy right with growth in the 3% neighbourhood, unemployment sliding and the Budget sliding into surplus.

And according to a universally recognised great political leader, Bill Clinton, who might have had one shortcoming (which nearly impeached him), political success is inextricably connected to his observation that “it’s the economy, stupid.”

So Malcolm got the economy right and Newspoll always found he was the preferred Prime Minister but his Government pretty well always stunk compared to Labor, when we Aussies were surveyed.

So you don’t have to be Malcolm Mackerras or David Speers to work out that MT’s failure to create a team in his own image was at the core of his sacking. To be precise, it was his failure to win over the troublesome right-wing group of his party that made his team look disunified and unelectable.

Of course, his task was huge as he had to deal with the guy he ‘assassinated’ in Tony Abbott, his acolytes who supported issues such as coal-fired power stations, dams, less refugees and climate change deniers, many of whom failed to secure positions in Cabinet, as well as conservative forces in the media, who were relentless in demanding the Government lean more to the right.

And while it was a gargantuan job, that’s what Malcolm had to pull off to retain his job and history shows he failed.

A friend of mine is currently trying to deal with a staff member who is proving to be intractable. She would prefer to win him over but he’s an inflexible type, who likes his business life to be how he likes it and he’s not used to being managed by a woman, who has goals to change the way the business is run.

He sees her directions, which involve change, as an assault on his methods and, like a lot of people who are firmly told that there’s a new kid/boss in town, finds it as a personal affront.

He actually told her after an official warning after he spoke to her rudely, that all would be well if she changed her attitude and stopped “pressing his buttons”!

Effectively, he gave his manager, who actually owns the business, a warning that she had to change or else!

When I was told the story, I said to her that he sounds like Tony Lockhart or Barry Hall — the Swans AFL players — who were great players but who could be handfuls for their coaches.

Both ultimately were harnessed by great coaches in Rodney Eade and Paul Roos and these guys have been seen as exceptional leaders of young men, who often are over-endowed with testosterone and media-inspired senses of grandeur, which is hard for any young person to deal with, let alone those who have to mould them into a winning team.

So how do you deal with a difficult team member? There is an old maxim of business that history says works and it goes like this: “Hire slowly. Fire quickly.”

My friend sometimes wishes that she had followed this rule of thumb but she could see some value in the guy but her patience and tolerance of his near-misogynist insults were wearing thin.

This is what the website techinasia.com suggests might work in dealing with a difficult team member:

1.     Start from ground zero. Find the root cause of the frustration. 

2.     Stay cool. 

3.     Understand the scope of the problem and its impact.

4.     Take a step back.

5.     Listen to other team members. 

6.     Set a one-to-one meeting. 

7.     Follow up, and give time. 

8.     Do not beat yourself up.

I think this list is a damn good guide for anyone doing their best to understand a troublesome employee, team member or even child but I suspect Malcolm needed something more to win over Tony and his team of fans inside the Coalition.

Six years ago, forbes.com offered Malcolm and others who find themselves in a similar invidious situation that he encountered advice worth considering. Rony Ross, the founder and executive chairman of Panorama Software, says “the secret of successful negotiation is to take the ego off the table.”

As a woman in a tech business in the Big Apple, she said it was not an easy place to lead.

“It was very competitive, predominantly male and full of young, egoistic people,” she recalls. “As a woman, I faced several disadvantages. Even though I was as ambitious as the rest, overt ambition or assertiveness was interpreted as aggressiveness.”

Forbes’ Jenna Gourdeau filled us in on Rony’s story.

“She developed a successful data-analysis software through her start-up Panorama, and in mid 1996, Microsoft came knocking. After a three-hour product demo, the Microsoft team took Ross out to lunch and offered to buy her company.”

This is how Rony recalls that great opportunity. “Panorama had only 20 employees then, and Microsoft was a giant company,” says Ross. “This was an extremely challenging opportunity for me to test my strategy.”

Rony’s negotiation technique centres on the following:

• Keep the discussion results-oriented, which takes the ego and people stuff out of the way. It means the facts and goals become more important.

• Be wise, not smart, keeping your eye on the end-result rather than winning any ego victories.

• Put your concerns on the table. Ross explained how she’d talked through the proposed deal with Microsoft: “Every time I ran into an issue, I turned it over to them and said, ‘I have a problem; help me deal with it.’”

• Avoid “I” statements. “I’ve been in so many negotiations with men who start with ‘want this, and I want that,’” says Ross. “If you talk instead about how ‘we need to reach a solution,’ it’s a very different approach.”

• Engage with body language. Ross said lots of people lean back, sending a message that they want to distance themselves from the person they’re negotiating with. She preferred to sit on the edge of her seat, rest her chin on her hands with her elbow on the table as she leaned into the conversation. “With my words, eyes and body language, it’s all about engagement,” she explained.

The end-result of her ego-free negotiation technique was a technology acquisition by Microsoft and so she held on to her company.

The great lead singer of Skyhooks, the late Graeme ‘Shirley’ Strachan, once sung “Ego is Not a Dirty Word” and I sometimes agree but it certainly can get in the way of success when it comes to teams trying to win premierships or the heart, minds and votes of the Australian people.

I think all of us, including Malcolm, could have benefit from these two maxims on ego.

First, “when you allow your ego to control your thoughts, everything you believe becomes an illusion.”

And second, and this might help my friend’s troublesome employee: “If someone corrects you, and you feel offended, then you have an ego problem.”

I suspect all politicians need to think long and hard about this insightful observation.



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