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Why Managers Should Control Less, Connect More

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) - Breaking Bad - Season 1, Episode 6 - Photo Credit: Cathy Kanavy/AMC

Before they were ruling the New Mexico meth scene, Walt and Jesse were grappling with faulty management techniques and disengagement problems. (Photo by Cathy Kanavy/AMC)

In the second episode of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” — which ended almost two years ago, believe it or not — rookie meth cook Walter White tells former student-turned-assistant Jesse Pinkman to dispose of a body by dissolving it in hydrofluoric acid inside a plastic container. Jesse unfortunately decides to go a different route and use the bathtub upstairs.

Weak stomachs beware. The acid-weakened tub and its liquefied contents fall through the ceiling, and Walt and Jesse have to mop it up. “Myth Busters” proved the situation is scientifically unlikely, but I couldn’t help but think of Walt’s management technique as an example of what can go wrong when someone thinks what he says goes — as in, you better do as I say, or you’ll have blood literally on your hands, walls, hardwood floor, etc. and a future drug kingpin angry at you.

Control isn’t the answer, said Dalton Kehoe, author of Mindful Management.”

“Think of the characteristics of a leader: smart, dominant, decisive,” he said. “They’re all connected to control. Characteristics like communicating, understanding people and getting them to work with you — those never make the list.”

Yet these are the traits most likely to make a manager great because of the way our minds work, Kehoe said. It makes sense for chief learning officers to develop leaders within an organization who recognize that fact and put it into practice.

Traditionally, managerial philosophy has been based on the rational mind, which is found in the prefrontal cortex, right behind the forehead. Promote a domineering supervisor, and they’ll get results from their underlings. Kehoe said this has been successful to a point, but we’re starting to burn out on the method, as seen through the employee disengagement plague.

Our brains function in two ways: emotionally, which Kehoe calls “elephant mind,” and rationally, “rider mind.” Rationale is a relatively small stick figure trying to control a five-ton emotional pachyderm. The elephant mind is the proverbial “elephant in the room” — we try to work without it affecting how we communicate and make decisions, but it always trumpets its way into the moment.

That pervasiveness can be helpful.

“When you connect to people, you’re making a positive connection that immediately engages the emotional mind,” Kehoe said. “We immediately open up to people who smile at us or politely say hi to us, even in public places where you don’t know anybody. The same thing happens at work, particularly when it happens over and over again.”

Just saying thank you can help—but I’ve written about that before.

A positive relationship grows into a trusting relationship when managers persistently connect emotionally with their employees. Could Walt have gotten better results from Jesse if he had smiled at him more often or said thank you for a hard day’s work in the meth lab?

Probably. I could write a whole book on the pros and cons of Walter White’s managerial skills if there weren’t already this Forbes story, a think piece from The Economist and countless other exploratory articles. Instead, consider this final thought from Kehoe:

“We don’t give the elephant mind enough credit,” he said. “Trust begins as an emotion, not as a rational thought."