The fictional Scandinavian detective may be embarrassingly direct but she gets the job done
IS IT acceptable to call your boss in the middle of the night?” asked Michael Brimm, emeritus professor of organisation and management at Insead, when I was doing my MBA. His daughter had just called him at 3am to say that she was accepted to Brown University, and Brimm was drawing analogies with the corporate world. Why not call your boss at 3am if the subject is meaningful to both of you? What is wrong with treating your job with the same enthusiasm as your private life, given that you spend more time and energy in that domain?
Years later, I finally got an answer to this question from a fictional character, detective Saga Norén from the remarkable Scandinavian drama The Bridge. Norén would call you in the middle of the night. She would not waste time on small talk. She would act with obsession and complete lack of regard for how she comes across. She would care about one thing and one thing only: doing her job. And she would expect you to do the same.
I wish I was that brave. Instead, I waste time on the obligatory “how have you been?”, although in most cases I am not remotely interested in the answer. “How is your scrotum?” asks Norén when forced to do small talk, a question no more awkward than a consistent faking of interest in your colleagues’ personal lives.
Some colleagues do share personal lives. In the past 20 years, I changed jobs five times, and in each one I developed a true friendship. But otherwise, I am adamant that we go to work to do a job, and not to form emotional attachments.
Some of our colleagues we get along with, others we don’t. And rather than pursue a mostly hopeless task of trying to like them, the best solution to solving any conflict is to focus on the job. That way, interpersonal problems quickly disappear because we have less time to think about them. But also because nothing inspires respect more than a true pro.
Norén is emotionally illiterate and genuinely not interested in anyone outside their work function. But, contrary to all HR theories, she is respected and even well liked. Because this is the effect that true professionalism has. Office charmers are nice to be around, but I normally forget about them soon after they are gone. But brilliance, skill, focus and dedication inspire me for years.
Incidentally, would anyone watch a TV series about a police detective who gets along with everyone, but is not very sharp and generally average at her job?
The other day, a senior executive at a company I am advising stalled a large project because someone forgot to copy him in on a memo. He has a lot to learn from Norén’s strongest quality, which is her integrity. She does not do politics, has no personal agenda. All her actions are driven by the sole objective of solving a case. This is why others are prepared to tolerate her flaws. Her lack of ego is as rare as it is admirable.
“Do Norén’s qualities, which are sometimes associated with autism, help in one’s career?”, I asked Brimm. “Good leaders may appear to be slightly higher on the autistic scale than is the socially desirable norm, because of their high levels of commitment and enthusiasm,” he conceded. He may be right about the social acceptability, but business-wise, we have a lot to learn from Norén. And with season three of The Bridge now in production, we will have at least one more year to do so. Lucky us.
Elena Shalneva is a communications consultant and non-executive director.
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