By Tony Samson
IT’S TRITE ADVICE to give anyone coming out of a hurtful situation to just forget it all and move on. Too much remembering of a painful episode is sure to keep one in a deep hole of despair — she was wearing the necklace I gave her when she left and loudly slammed the kitchen door. And then she worked for a neighbor.
Hyperthymesia (from the Greek, “excessive remembering”) is a psychological condition which prevents a person from forgetting anything. In many cases, this involves a photographic memory that cannot erase anything already recorded. This opposite of amnesia is an unwanted overload of memories, whether good or bad. The suitcase of recollections is filled to the point of bursting, becoming a heavy load to carry around.
Forgetting is an essential management skill. It is needed for the process of “unlearning,” which is critical when assuming a new job. A senior executive moving into a new corporate culture needs to learn about the new company or industry she’s joining as she tries to unlearn the mindset and work habits of the company and country she previously occupied…or occupied her.
Refusing to unlearn a previous corporate culture makes for an irritating leader, as the transferee prefaces her sentences with, “this is how we did it in my previous company,” explicitly saying — this is how we’ll be doing it here from now on. The newcomer will unconsciously be applying a previous set of values and beliefs to a culture which can be totally different. Different organizations require different cultures, including such matters as different time horizons, say, between a water utility and the fast food business — your order will be delivered in three hours.
The need to understand and accept a new corporate culture is too often resisted by one parachuted to even a superior organization that may be many times bigger and more profitable than a previous one. This attitude is like that of old colonizers imposing mores and traditions wholesale on countries they have vanquished. Indigenous culture is there to be replaced by the better model.
Culture shock is most evident with the entry of private sector executives into government jobs. The public sector culture is everything the private sector executive abhors. Rules and precedents are a substitute for decision-making. Breaking them entails violating the law or failing the review of the audit commission.
It is no surprise that corporate executives, no matter how accomplished as CEOs in their previous careers, and how honest and well meaning, meet their Waterloo in public service. Their contempt for the system and those that promote it is seldom disguised. The bureaucracy fights back the best way it knows how. It sits on requests, cites manuals, routes papers to non-existent bureaus to sabotage change. It leaks scandals (usually administrative oversights) to media to make the boss look unfit, if not venal. Red tape is a weapon used against overbearing efficiency experts.
The process of forgetting and unlearning requires humility. There is a tacit acceptance that the new organization is capable of teaching new and useful skills. Forgetting the rules of a previous career does not mean throwing away accumulated experience and the lessons that come with it. It merely seeks to maintain openness to different ways of getting things done.
The management of change involves a culture clash and requires missionary zeal. But simply out of numerical asymmetry, the transformation manager must not expect the mass of subordinates to quickly unlearn their own hard-won skills. It’s more sensible for the former to bend and see what he can learn from his new charges.
Sometimes, it is necessary to forget the past to proceed to the future. Forgetting is a creative process. It allows one to move on and try new things, even with the risk of failure.
But, what about history? Can we also just forget it?
There are those who in the name of national unity urge all (especially the voters in the coming elections) to forget the past and just move on — it happened almost fifty years ago, can we just get his daughter on the ballot? (She has such stellar academic credentials.)
It is good to be reminded of Santayana’s oft-quoted admonition — “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Even traumatic events that need to be forgotten should yield lessons that cry to be remembered.
Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda