There's No Such Thing as a Blank Slate

By Mahoney, F. X. | Supervisory Management, August 1989 | Go to article overview
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There's No Such Thing as a Blank Slate

Mahoney, F. X., Supervisory Management

There's No Such Thing as a Blank Slate

EVER WONDER WHY THAT EMPLOYEE WITH TOP-NOTCH talents did not get something done as you expected? You described what was needed--carefully and completely. Well, the problem may stem from something that happened, or didn't happen, on a previous task. The fact is that there's no such thing as a clean slate, and supervisor and subordinate both bring to the work situation past experiences that have to be reckoned with. Leadership teaching suggests that the quality of a supervisor-employee relationship depends on the first interaction. But that's not so. The fact is that there are untold numbers of experiences that influence the relationship. Rather than a clean slate, there is a slate with an important record of history that impacts future dealings.

Large and small chalk marks represent antecedent events. Add interactions with peers, which indirectly impact leader interactions, and the slate becomes crowded. The chalk marks themselves last a surprisingly long time, depending on their impact on the owner of the slate.

On practical grounds, what does this mean? It means, of course, that there are at least two slates in every interaction: the employee's and the leader's. If you think that each time you, as a leader, approach someone with a work assignment you're dealing with someone with a blank slate, you're completely mistaken. The words spoken may seem to suggest that it's a whole new world but it's that which is not spoken that counts.

Like it or not, when you ask someone to do something, for example, the first decision the person will make is just how much energy and competency he or she will give to the task. Current personal and professional considerations influence this, certainly. But of probably much greater significance is what has gone before. As historians note, only fools disregard lessons from the past.

The clean-slate fallacy

In explaining the clean-slate fallacy, my intent is not to contradict textbooks. It's just that from time to time, we all need to focus on the day-to-day reality of interpersonal relationships. A general bias of most writers is the perfectibility of the human spirit. That is, given adequate communication and meaningful participation, they say, all organizational interactions will come out just about perfectly: Individuals and organizations will grow and prosper. Baloney! Some percentage of the working population were never intended to work well in an organization. Their slates were a mess before they arrived at the organization's door, loaded with negative experiences with authority figures and various painful personal failures. There's no term that fits; a hybrid might be "organization-opaths." Some, meanwhile, seem stamped out of an organization-person "cookie cutter" and just about perfect, except for being too house-broken and unwilling to test existing norms and values.

The rest of us are varying shades of gray relative to our current organizational assignment and leadership relationships.

My personal view is that it is critical to recognize that many, if not most, individual organizational slates are loaded with too many negatives. That's because negativism is too easy to create in organizational interactions.

Overcoming negativism

So what should you do? The answer is simply that you have to recognize that these individual slates are around, including your own. Next, and contrary to your nature or organizational culture, you have to do a topnotch job of perceiving and recognizing suitable, certainly exemplary performance to offset any propensity toward organizational "negativism.

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