Keeping your head down

Great interview with Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, in today’s New York Times, but I have to wonder if his view that employees need to view their roles and responsibilities broadly recognizes the reality of what’s going on these days in large companies.

“People can get trapped by their context,” he says.  “The nature of the bubble is that people who are in it can’t see or else it would never have occurred.  But other people can exercise a critical facuty based upon their different contexts or their perspective.  So asking people’s opinions, getting a lot of information, establishing a culture where people think — it’s not only extra credit but it’s their duty to give you opinions about things that they think, what they’re worried about or isn’t right.  And we encourage that.”

In a perfect world, he’s right.  Perhaps that approach is working with his direct reports, but many of the people in the trenches in large companies these days are following a mantra of “if I keep my head down, maybe I’ll survive all this.”  They’re scared to take chances or speak up.

I would have liked Blankfein to describe how he protects (or maybe the better word is empowers) the people who do step up.  Like his Wall Street brethren,  Blankfein has cut his workforce and one can’t help but wonder how the spectre of future layoffs impacts execution of his worldview.

Perhaps it comes down to how companies approached layoffs.  Those that cut deep once and then moved on — even if they went deeper than they needed to that first time — can build that culture.  Those that have gone back time and again with layoffs (or the threats of layoffs) aren’t likely to get many people looking beyond their screen or defined responsibilities.  It’s the Whack-A-Mole approach I discussed in a previous post:  Pop your head up and it just gets lopped off.  Unless you’re very, very lucky.



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