January 14th, 2011

Mentors and Dementors

In the richly symbolic world of Harry Potter, dementors are creatures which suck out all the hope and joy from life. Under their sway, people wander around aimlessly in an icy fog of depression, out of touch with their true nature and capabilities. I think the name and associated imagery they conjure are an excellent way to illustrate a category of dysfunctional interactions that go on in organizations today. (Don’t worry, there’s also a real-life analog to the Patronus charm).

A “real world” dementor is someone in a position of authority or influence who consistently asserts the priorities of one or more of the organizational dimensions in a way that conflicts with your own priorities. (More fundamentally, they assert the priorities of one or more of the underlying psychological functions in a way that conflicts with your priorities for those functions, but we’ll stick with the organizational terminology here since it’s simpler). For example, a business-centered Sales Director might encounter a dementor in the form of a Vice President who regularly throws people-centric wrenches into their interactions. The Sales Director is all set to hire a new salesperson who brings a strong reputation of closing big deals, with his colleagues concurring, and the VP raises an objection about how blunt the candidate was during the interview process. And when the Sales Director wants to design a compensation scheme for his team that focuses primarily on sales performance, the VP interjects from left field about making years of service (as a measure of company loyalty) and peer rating (as a measure of teamwork) more prominent. The VP also offers frequent, unsolicited advice to the Sales Director, phrased in generalities like how he should temper his zeal for marketshare and make personal relationships with his colleagues a higher priority. He “sagely” recounts how he too was once preoccupied with the bottom line, how he grew from that, and how he knows exactly what it’s like to be in the Sales Director’s position. The Sales Director, of course, feels exactly the opposite — that the VP has no real empathy for him at all.

The degree of a dementor’s impact depends on the intensity of one’s identification with an organizational dimension. If the Sales Director is so identified with Business that he sees any People considerations as irrelevant or even a weakness to be treated with contempt, he will be highly susceptible to the dementor’s power. Lots of his energy will be drained in his conflict with the VP. That conflict might be externalized (e.g. heated arguments), or internalized (e.g. passive aggression). Either way, he’s fighting a losing battle.

But the solution isn’t to submit to the dementor’s ways either. A business-centered person who forces himself into a predominantly people-centric approach becomes a watered-down, milquetoast version of himself, and is a far less valuable contributor. (The same logic applies conversely, of course, for people-centered persons, and for the other dimensions). In Jungian personality type terms, this is called falsification of type, or false type development. If the Sales Director sets aside his own instincts and substitutes the external “wisdom” of the VP, he will likely overcompensate by hiring salespeople who are pleasant but lack a competitive edge, and he’ll design compensation plans that reward people who are popular with their peers but who don’t sell much. He’ll suffer in the icy fog of despondency, because he’s not being true to himself and what energizes him. Organizations that allow this to happen on a large scale end up with a demotivated, demoralized workforce who may behave politically correctly and give lip service to the idea of being “well-rounded”, but who in fact can’t reach their full potential and are limited to mediocrity.

If neither constant conflict nor constant subjugation are desirable outcomes when dealing with dementors, what else can we do? This is where mentors come in. Mentors help us develop the patronus of self-awareness, which dispels the negative energy from our encounters with dementors, leaving in its place a clear-headed set of interactions with people of all dimensional affiliations. To illustrate this, let’s look at another example.

This time, let’s take someone who identifies with the technology dimension. This person lives and breathes information technology, has a keen instinct for breakthrough innovation, and is intent on driving technological changes that will have a huge positive impact on his organization. The problem is, he is beset by dementors on a regular basis. A business dementor nags him about quantifying a financial return on investment for all of his projects. A people dementor criticizes his bold approach and admonishes him to get approval from everyone before starting new initiatives. And a process dementor raises objections about how his projects don’t conform to rigid policies. Fortunately, the technologist finds a mentor who says he can help him solve his dementor problem. Let’s pick up the conversation between the technologist and the mentor, after the mentor has explained the organizational dimensions and set the context for the discussion.

Technologist: I suppose you’re going to tell me that I need to align with their “business needs”, get “buy-in” from all of them, fit into their “process” for doing things, and set aside my technology interests, right? Because —
Mentor: Heavens no!
T: — that doesn’t work at all!
M: Of course it doesn’t. Because you’re not motivated by their business needs, their interpersonal needs, or their process needs.
T: Finally, someone who understands.
M: You have your own business, people, and process interests.
T: Huh?
M: It’s true.
T: What do you mean?? I can’t STAND the suits who blather on about “walletshare”, the touchy-feely folks who want to sing Kumbaya, or the pencil pushers who need to document a process for everything.
M: And yet, how did you respond to the guy last week who was complaining about your company’s low ranking in corporate donations?
T: I told him that our company had nothing to be ashamed about, that we contribute to society in a huge way by building great products and services that make a difference in people’s lives. I also had to confess how proud I was of that accountant who found a perfectly legal tax loophole that saved us a hundred million dollars last year. Because of that, we were able to invest in a new manufacturing plant that’s so much more efficient, and pass on the savings to our customers.
M: Now who’s the “suit”? But wait, didn’t you also come down harshly on the layoffs in XYZ division?
T: Yeah, that was horrible. They barely gave any notice or severance pay. I could understand if the whole company were about to go under and we had to stop the ship from sinking. But we have plenty of cash! There are some great people in that division who would make outstanding contributors in other parts of the company. Sure, there’s some deadwood too, but some of that is the company’s fault for not managing well. In any event, we can easily afford to give people a good severance package.
M: Looks like you’re singing Kumbaya in your own key. And say, how did that server build incident turn out?
T: That was ridiculous. A couple of new hires in operations would download random operating systems from the Internet, and then build new production servers with whatever OS they were trying out that day. I first pointed them to a lab where they could experiment with any software they liked, and then, sat them down and explained to them the value of a production build p…process, oh you got me.
M: Sounds like something that a pencil pusher would approve.
T: I get it, I get it. I guess I do have interests in the business, people and process dimensions as well, even if those are largely subservient to my technology interests. But how does recognizing that help me deal with dementors?
M: Next time you see them, keep in mind your own interests in all of the dimensions, not just the areas where you disagree. When they’re speaking, center your attention on their overall presence, not just the content of what they’re saying. And see if you can identify any common goals or approaches.

After a few months, the technologist reports back to the mentor:

M: How did it go?
T: It was a different experience, that’s for sure. I heard the business dementor present at a division review meeting, and he was as irritating and dismissive as usual, describing technology as just a means to a monetary end. But then I noticed how organized his presentation was, how he illustrated his points with clear examples, and how he finished on time. I still thought he was clueless, but I wasn’t as worked up about it as I was in the past. As a result, I was able to pay better attention to the next speaker, a peer of the dementor’s who was business-centered as well, but with a much different attitude. He started off by acknowledging his limitations in keeping up with technology, talked about the core mission of the company and how it created real value for customers, and where he thought we could do an even better job. If I were still fuming at the dementor, I might have started to play buzzword bingo on this guy, because he did use a lot of big words. But I was able to pick up on the subtleties of his presentation, and saw an opening for one of my favorite technologies. I later exchanged a few emails with him and he’s agreed to sponsor a pilot project. Not once did he harass me about return on investment or anything like that! And although he’s no technologist, he seems to understand the ethos, and I find myself extending more trust towards him as well. Could be the start of a strong partnership.
M: Great! How about the other dementors?
T: Well a funny thing happened to the people dementor — he just vanished! I mean, he’s not a dementor anymore. Instead of immediately reacting to his comments, I just acknowledged them in a neutral way. After a couple rounds of this, he stopped offering me unsolicited advice. I guess he was feeding off of my comments just as much as I was reacting to his, and when I shut down the fuel line from my side, that extinguished the flames.
T: As for the process dementor, I realized how he could save a lot of licensing costs on his bean counting software, and I shared that with him, no strings attached. I was just looking for other areas where we had common interests/goals. He was so grateful that although he’s very strict about his policies, he told me he’d be willing to make an exception for my projects.
M: Looks like a resounding success!
T: Thanks, I owe it all to your advice!
M: You’re welcome, but all I did was point you to what you already had within yourself. Keep that in mind, and you’ll do just fine.

Granted, this was a summarized version of an admittedly hypothetical scenario. But it’s based on a lot of real-world experience. Mentors and dementors are, of course, just labels that we apply to people who evoke different responses in us. But the internal distinction is immensely valuable to make. We can use our natural talents to grow beyond them and develop broader self-awareness. Or we can become self-defeating and end up more fragmented.

This is especially important to keep in mind when you are in the position of advising someone. Are you behaving like a mentor or a dementor? (I know I’ve been both!) Are you blindly overlaying your own map onto them or just parroting someone else’s advice? Or, are you looking at them as a unique individual, seeing their potential, empathizing with them, and reminding them of who they are and what they can be?

Expecto Patronum!

6 comments to Mentors and Dementors

  • Interesting and well-developed analogy, Kartik; I like the imagery and the notion of a de-Mentor, the antithesis of someone meant to assist and develop ones potential. At the end of the day, the point is to recognize the strengths and weaknesses in your own position as well as that of your co-workers, and work to find common cause, at least insofar as that forwards the primary objectives of the business.

    It’s all to easy for each of us to slip into our own cocoon of self-interest, especially on projects in which we are strongly vested. But it’s almost always best to accept input from all quarters with an open mind, and that’s the message I’m hearing in your post.

  • Parakram

    I like the distinction you did between ‘mentors’ and ‘dementors’.
    My best line … ‘but all I did was point you to what you already had within yourself.’ – He did not tried to change or influence his thought process, and that is very important.
    I think we should not only recognize and encourage our own potential but also of others too. The way the nature of work is turning these days the mentorship model cannot survive without a slight dementor flavor.
    Better all these types than the ‘demontors’.

  • For sure, I can recognize situations I was involved in within the companies I worked for. I also attended an interesting training once in order to help Technologists present to VP, manage conflicts, get more business acumen… All of that, as well as mentors are useful to improve our position as Technologists. Now, I wish dementors would behave as openly and with as much curiosity as many Technologists, including yourself, behave. That would change the world.

    After all everybody knows Einstein, Kepler, Pythagore, but long forgot the guys who were in charge of their finances 😉 For me, technologists are really those who help make the world progress, maybe also because they are able to come over dementors.

  • David Faltermier

    What a great explanation. Great emphasis on the importance of wise counsel in recognizing our blind spots. I’ve experienced loss in project sponsorship in the past because I lacked discernment in balancing my own priorities with those of my manager(s). I’ve also been fortunate to have managers run interference for the team, keeping dementors at bay so the team can get their jobs done.

  • I’ve been there with the mentors and dementors. Reminds me of the prayer of St. Francis (made popular by Steven Covey): “grant that I may not so much seek to be … understood, as to understand.”

  • Rush Kester

    The real take away from the mentors is always listen with an open mind and don’t let your emotional reaction to the dementors get in the way of your thinking.

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