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The art of forgetting

IT’S NOT just broken personal relationships that require the need to forget, along with the admonition to “just move on,” as if memories, especially the bad ones, are a heavy burden that hinder mobility. The art of forgetting needs to be developed, even if it comes all too naturally to the elderly who don’t remember where they parked the car or their PIN in front of the ATM — I know it’s the numbers of my birthday. The socially distanced line at the back gets restless.

A senior executive pirated from a competitor has to unlearn the mindset and culture of the company he left. (Why do they have so many meetings?) This ability to forget applies to the lower levels too. Say the top media company’s franchise is canceled. What happens to the talents and support groups that are also disenfranchised? Some migrate to another organization (you need to take a salary cut). Do they bring the hubris and arrogance of the market leader to the third-place company they now work for?

The failure to respect a new corporate culture is no different from old colonizers imposing their traditions wholesale on countries they have vanquished. Little regard is shown for the indigenous culture in the process of assimilation.

“Culture shock” is most traumatic in the entry of private sector executives in government jobs. The public sector culture is everything the private sector executive abhors. Government culture rewards seniority rather than merit. Manuals and audit rules are the basis for decision-making. The informal hierarchies are not reflected in the management structure. There are unwritten rules that preserve the status quo of entitlements. Hints of corruption, especially for reformers, are too delicious a temptation to resist — what is he up to? And why does he use so many consultants?

It is no surprise that private sector executives, no matter how accomplished and well meaning, meet their Waterloo in public service. Their impatience with the system and those that promote it is seldom disguised. The bureaucracy fights back the best way it knows how. It delays by slow walking. It ensures low performance indicators for the new boss from missed deadlines. It leaks scandals (usually administrative oversights) to the media to make the boss look unfit.

Successful public executives are usually those who have already had some bureaucratic experience in compromise and red tape. Hence, military types smoothly slide into public positions with very little adjustment. They know how to follow orders and red-tag critics. They can even do fitness exercises sitting down.

The process of forgetting past entitlements and successes in a previous organization (or at least not mentioning them too often) requires humility. The new company one has joined is capable of teaching new and useful skills.

Forgetting most of the lessons learned in a previous career does not mean throwing away accumulated experience. It merely seeks to maintain openness to different ways of getting things done rather than presuming one way to be superior to another. Central to the posture of an unwillingness to integrate with a new organization is a deep-seated arrogance of somebody who has all the answers. So why should he listen to the opinions of the natives?

True, adjustments need to come from both sides. But simply out of numerical asymmetry, the newly poached executive must not expect the mass of subordinates to unlearn their own hard-won skills. It’s more sensible for the former to bend and see what he can learn from his new charges.

The art of forgetting makes one a good listener.

There is a rare psychological state called hyperthymesia, the opposite of forgetfulness. The former involves excessive remembering. Every detail of one’s past is continuously imposed on the mind leading to insomnia and a paralysis of thought from an overloaded closet of memories. Not being able to forget anything brings its own burden. Selective amnesia, or the ability to forget hurts, fake news, betrayals, and feelings of persecution allows an individual to adopt a more optimistic outlook.

Forgetting one’s bias and accepting a new culture is as important as understanding the business one has joined. Moving on and moving forward require unchaining ourselves from certain memories… and acquiring new and more positive ones.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda

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