When my first niece was born (more years ago than I care to remember), one of my first gifts to her was “Where The Wild Things” Are by Maurice Sendak. “Where The Wild Things Are” was the start of her love affair with his books, and she eventually accumulated every one of his works as a part of her budding library.
So like millions around the world, my niece and I were both saddened to hear that, at the age of 83, Maurice Sendak had died.
He left behind him an impressive legacy of books that were hugely popular with both children and adults. And while a lot of children’s literature tends to follow safe, well-scrubbed formulas, the world Sendak’s children inhabited was a world of adventure, uncertainty, and fear of the unknown.
The drawings that illustrated his books were the same. The monsters were darkly scary, with lots of spines, and scales, and very, very big pointy teeth. They threatened to eat, and tear, and destroy little children in a number of horrific ways – and you believed every one.
His stories, too, drew on the dark and scary things that inhabit children’s imaginations. In Sendak’s books, the world didn’t always make sense, and what you believed didn’t always turn out to be real. And the children in Sendak’s books were complex creatures, with rich emotional lives and a capacity for both good and bad.
What made Sendak’s work so groundbreaking was its refusal to pander to children, and its brutal honesty. He believed that children, even very young children, should not be denied truth in the assumption that they wouldn’t be able to fully understand or fully comprehend, or that doing so was protecting them. He believed that children were able to face the dark corners, where the wild things are, and make empowering decisions about what course of action to take.
And it occurred to me that, so often, the executive suite treats rank-and-file employees as though they were children who need to be “protected” from harsh realities, or who are incapable of understanding the elements making a difficult decision.
Interestingly, office gossip being what it is, employees usually know when there’s a looming problem; they know when there’s a monster lurking close by. And not having any input, instead of making them feel “protected”, tends to make employees feel helpless and powerless.
So, taking a page out of one of Sendak’s books, one company decided to pull the monsters out of the dark corner, and let their employees help them figure out what to do.
Like so many companies, data storage giant EMC had to decide where to make cost-cutting measures. Most companies would have left top management to decide where to make the cuts, but EMC tried something different. Using their social media platform called EMCIOne, they asked their employees to tell management where cuts could be made.
Thousands of employees logged on and pointed out existing inefficiencies that, it turned out, their bosses were unaware of. In the end, the cuts that were made were less painful because employees felt they had some input, and the decisions were better for the company’s overall future.
Chances are you work in an organization that typically makes top-down decisions. How different would the process look if everyone participated in critical, life-changing decisions?
In “Where The Wild Things Are”, probably Sendak’s most famous book, young Max goes on an adventure where “the walls became the world all around”. What would happen if managers, like Sendak, decided to trust their employees and let the walls become the world all around?