The interview with Veronika Hucke is first in journal from getAbstract appeared. Personal-Financial.com publishes an abridged version here, the full interview can be found here. GetAbstract and Personal-Financial.com are cooperating on the occasion of the getAbstract International Book Award 2020, for which Veronika Hucke is nominated with her book “Fair Leadership”.
Ms. Hucke, you have worked in top positions for large companies such as HP and Philips – have you already had the experience of not leading fairly?
VERONIKA HUCKE: Unfortunately, I have to admit that I wasn’t fair enough in many situations. I rose quickly and had my first leadership role at 28. Whenever there was any project to promote women from then on, I was forcibly recruited. I hated that for a long time. I was convinced: if you really want to, you can make it to the top. And: if you don’t succeed, you wouldn’t be smart, talented or determined enough. In retrospect, of course, that was incredibly arrogant. In my “defense” I can say that the consciousness was also different in the 90s.
What has changed?
At the beginning of my career, the so-called “advancement of women” was about teaching women how to assert themselves in a man’s world. Anyone who walks through the world today with halfway open eyes hears about the importance of privileges, the aspects in one’s own biography that make one’s ascent easier. For example, my parents were both academics. They always trusted me and my abilities, even when my testimonials gave little cause for it. I went to school in the USA as a child and studied in England. I am confident, extroverted, curious, and difficult to scare. All of this helps in a career when it comes to being seen and noticed. Today we are further and in good companies the focus is on breaking down barriers to diversity, questioning systems and processes and making them more equitable. This gave rise to the impetus for the book.
What do these companies’ efforts look like today – and what are they good for?
For example, many companies have “unconscious bias training” in their program. Here, participants learn how unconscious prejudices cloud our judgment and influence our behavior. That our decisions are nowhere near as rational as we like to believe. And most of those who take part in such training find it really exciting. The problem: They often know afterwards that they are often unjust and wrongly judged, but not how to prevent it. Unconscious prejudices are associations that are so firmly established that they function without consciousness, intent, or control. The popular advice that one should “make them aware” is simply not enough. This is feedback that I also get quite often from executives: They have taken part in a training course, they were fascinated or scared, they may have recognized some of their subconscious prejudices, but do not know how to prevent them from “striking “.
Executives, you write, must be fair, that is: decent, fair and honest. Let’s rummage through the terms together briefly. Where does the common sense of decency end?
A typical case are companies in financial difficulties where jobs are being cut. If it is fair – or decent – something will be decided on the basis of conclusive criteria that apply to everyone. Then there are those whose qualifications are particularly important and who perform well. And of course it is important to take social aspects into account. Nevertheless, such cases are often different. It becomes unfair when in the end it is sympathy that decides. When I have to know the “right” people in order to keep my job or to find another position. Incidentally, this is not only unfair to those affected, it is also not good for the company.
You write that “leading fairly” means treating everyone equally – that is, justly. But hand on heart: is that even possible?
It is a misunderstanding that “being fair” means treating everyone equally. On the contrary: Leading fairly means adapting your environment and your own behavior to the needs of different people. Only in this way is it possible to create the same conditions and break down barriers that could block a career. Admittedly, perfection can hardly be achieved. However, if I try to do justice to different people, to understand what drives them, why they act, how they do it and what influences my own behavior, then a lot is gained. If I also show that I make an effort, but also know that I am sometimes wrong, that this is why feedback is important to me and I take it seriously, then I get the help I need to keep improving.
What additional barriers to justice exist exclusively in business life?
A big problem, especially for managers, is operational blindness. And that tends to get worse from level to level. Employees often shy away from conveying negative messages. That is why many prefer to mention the positive news, talk about successes and talk down problems in a small way. Over time, a sky-blue bubble emerges in which the world is all right. By then, at the latest, no one dares to come around the corner with the blunt truth from the boss. This becomes very visible when the situation escalates and a solid economic scandal has arisen. Something like this is also becoming increasingly common in politics.
What is it that favors such catastrophic spirals?
Such castles in the air are particularly easy to create when people surround themselves with others who are similar to them. Same sex, similar socialization, similar experiences. Such a constellation creates the breeding ground for so-called “groupthink”. It means that differing opinions and contrary ideas are not voiced by those involved. Even if you do not agree with statements and decisions, leave them uncommented so as not to disturb the harmony and cohesion. In this context, I also find a study that illustrates how dangerous blind trust can be – and that this is particularly easy to develop in homogeneous groups. For example, science has found on several occasions that predictions about price development by investment teams were much worse when they consisted exclusively of white people. The reason: the whites have accepted excessive prices from their white colleagues without being asked. In “colorful” teams, the assessments of colleagues were questioned and, if necessary, corrected – thereby preventing price bubbles.
Michael Wiederstein is Senior Editor at getAbstract