Professional Effectiveness or Personal Fortitude?

Chances are you’ve at some point known or worked with someone who has endured a significant personal crisis.  Perhaps it was a nasty divorce, a life-threatening personal or family illness, the loss of a spouse or child, or a similar life event that turned their world upside down.

I lost my father to a heart attack just weeks after I turned 17 years old and days before I started my senior year of high school.  I can still remember the numbness I felt as I went to school that fall, surrounded by friends whose lives were blissfully unchanged while my own was irreversibly altered.  But as difficult as it was, I persevered.  It could even be argued that it was easy for me to move forward simply because I still had my entire life before me.  But I doubt I considered that at the time.  No, I persevered because there was simply nothing else I could do.  I couldn’t reverse or change what had happened.  Like it or not, I could only adapt and move on.

As bystanders – family, friends, and co-workers, we admire the strength of those who have suffered tragedy and yet are somehow able to keep going.  Because we can only imagine their grief and anxiety, we marvel at their ability to continue doing the simplest of daily activities and can hardly understand how they’re able to keep coming to work or to class.  The fact is, like me at age 17, they do it because there is simply nothing else they can do.  They adapt and move on because there is no other option.  They have no choice.  Bills still have to be paid, mouths still have to be fed – the responsibilities of life don’t stop.

It’s human nature to sympathize with people in these situations, and there is nothing wrong with that.  But I think it’s easy to confuse sympathy with admiration, and there is an important distinction between the two.  At the risk of sounding coldhearted, to admire someone who continues to live and work after a tragedy is like admiring a sailor who swims after his boat sinks.  Do we admire him for not giving up and drowning?  Do we admire his courage?  Truth be told, most of us probably do; after all, we’re inspired by stories of perseverance and love to cheer for the underdog.   But again, what choice does he have?  He can swim and live or he can sink and die – not much of a choice.  It’s a simplistic comparison, but I think it relevant nonetheless.

The point I want to make is we have such a natural inclination to admire those who overcome tragedy, we often let it cloud the rest of our judgment about the individual.  Specifically, it’s easy to confuse what we perceive as personal fortitude with the reality of professional effectiveness.  Surely we’re inclined to assess the individual’s performance more generously in light of the adversity they’ve faced, and this is certainly the right thing to do temporarily while the person heals.  After all, no one can be expected to perform at full capacity either during or in the aftermath of a personal crisis.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m referring to the tendency to allow our permanent perception of the individual to be skewed due to whatever past tragedy they’ve endured – confusing their fortitude and resilience in moving on with their ongoing effectiveness in their job.

In short, personal fortitude is ultimately no substitute for, and is indeed in this context only marginally related to, good performance.  It’s not for me to say how long a person should be allowed to recover from a crisis.  That depends on the individual, situation, and circumstances.  However, regardless of whatever tragedy the individual has suffered in the past (or even presently endures), eventually his or her performance and professional effectiveness must be judged on its merit.  We can admire their strength and perseverance, but that alone is a poor substitution for meaningful achievement.

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12 Rules for Success: A Father’s Advice to his Kids

father-and-child

  1. Don’t despair in failure
    Be strengthened in your resolve to succeed.  Failure is temporary.  Rather than being discouraged, learn to leverage failure as an instrument for learning and an opportunity for strengthened resolve.  Remember, every hurdle cleared is one less obstacle between you and your objective.  Should you stumble and fall, fall forward.
  2. Never give up
    Be a relentless tormentor of your objectives.  Be both patient and persistent, focusing on the objectives, not the obstacles.  If you believe in your course, persevere to the end, even in the face of great adversity or overwhelming odds.  Never give up.
  3. Never compromise your principles
    It takes courage to draw a line in the sand, to stand up for what you believe.  Your principles should be absolute, upheld with unwavering conviction.  Personal preferences, on the other hand, warrant flexibility.  Know the difference between the two – when to be firm, and when to be flexible.
  4. Own your mistakes
    Admit your mistakes, embrace them, and learn from them.  Don’t hide them and never ever deflect responsibility to someone else.  The future has an uncanny way of revenging past deception.  Take ownership and live with the consequences.
  5. Challenge convention; question assumptions
    Question what everyone else takes for granted or assumes to be true.  Ambiguity and change is unsettling.  Consistency is comfortable and people often become unwittingly trapped by complacency or conjecture.  Acceptnothing without confirmation or validation and challenge others who do.  Remember the old saying; sacred cows make the best burgers.
  6. Show integrity in the smallest of things
    Integrity is the resolve to do the right thing even when no one else will know you’ve done it.  It’s returning a shopping cart to the cart return, turning in the sunglasses you found, leaving your name and number on the car you accidentally bumped.  Integrity is rooted in the foundation of character.  It’s not rewarded by recognition, but sustained by a personal conviction of right and wrong.
  7. Lead from the front
    …from over your shoulder and within arms reach.  You have to touch the people you lead; walk among them and share in their burdens and triumphs.  Lead face to face – not from an office, not through memorandums or phone calls or email. Show, don’t tell, and don’t ask anyone to do what you are unwilling to do yourself.
  8. Establish a sphere of influence
    Everyone needs advocates, people resolute in their support while unequivocal in their candor.  Surround yourself with an inner circle of trusted friends and family who will champion your cause while providing honest, constructive feedback and advice.  Learn to leverage their strengths to counterbalance your weaknesses.
  9. Learn to ask questions
    Rather than trying to learn all the answers, it’s far more important to learn what questions to ask.  Milan Kundera, the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being once observed, “The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything.”  The ability to ask intelligent, relevant, and insightful questions is supremely valuable and uncommonly rare.  One final thought… know the distinction between asking for information and asking for affirmation.
  10. Pick your battles carefully
    Life is not fair; injustice sometimes prevails.  Still, not every conflict warrants a fight.  Like it or not, our world is complicated by political influences, and it’s easy to win a battle and still lose the war.  Consider what is to be gained and lost, and keep your eye on the larger objective.
  11. Master the language
    It might sound old-school in the age of texting, tweeting, and social networking, but a mastery of language communicates as much credibility and commands as much respect as a pedigree diploma, perhaps more.  Language skills in our society have become appallingly poor.  By contrast, a broad vocabulary brandished with flawless spelling, punctuation, and grammar is an incredibly powerful asset.
  12. If you speak, speak thoughtfully with purpose, confidence, and authority; otherwise, be silent
    Don’t speak simply to be heard.  Have something relevant to say.  “Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.” – Robert Frost

Delusional Effectiveness Disorder: Confusing Activity with Achievement

De-lu-sion-al  Ef-fec-tive-ness  Dis-or-der

Pronunciation: \di-‘lüzh-nəl\ \ĭ-fěk’tĭv-nes\ \dĭs-ôr’dər\

–noun

  1. a functional disorder characterized by systematized delusions of accomplishment and the projection of personal achievement, which are ascribed to the span and intensity of activity demonstrated, and manifested in the notable absence of meaningful results.
  2. delusions of grandeur
  3. slang: rectal-cranial inversion

Mission AccomplishedWe’ve all seen them.  Companies and organizations around the country are full of them.  You know who I’m talking about – you have a few in your organization right now.  I’m referring to those people who make the most noise, ask the most questions, make the most suggestions, send the most email – unrepentant self-promoters who frantically wave their banner to demonstrate to the world how busy and important they are and how tirelessly they work.  They make a big fuss and put on a great show, but actually accomplish very little.  In short, these are folks who confuse activity with achievement.

I refer to this common malady as Delusional Effectiveness Disorder.  While its origins are unknown, the presence of this condition has been noted among several business, military, and political leaders throughout history, including recent presidents.  The manifestation is essentially the same in all those infected.  Somewhere along the way in their careers, folks with DED have fallen under the illusion that recognition and advancement is the reward of working hard.  Indeed, working hard is important, but is only a meaningless shell if the effort fails to yield fruit.  (For the sake of argument I’m using “hard work” and “working hard” interchangeably and in the same context.)  To be sure, hard work is to be admired, but not simply for its own sake.  By contrast, smart work resulting in meaningful accomplishment is far more impressive. Success is the product of accomplishment, not merely the result of working hard.

Hard vs. Smart – Consider the response of the bar soap manufacturer when it discovered approximately one in every thousand of its boxes left the plant empty, resulting in numerous customer complaints.  Their team sprang to action, their best engineers were assembled, the equipment manufacturer was consulted, an extensive quality control study compiled, and a detailed plan to re-design their assembly line proposed – all at a substantial cost in time, labor, and materials.  Thankfully, a low level staffer quietly suggested that they simply set up a large fan at the end of the production line.  The empty boxes, he reasoned, were substantially lighter than those containing the bars of soap, and would therefore easily blow off the conveyor.

Or… When NASA began to launch astronauts into space, they discovered that their pens wouldn’t work in zero gravity. To solve this problem, they spent one decade and $12 million.  They developed a pen that worked at zero gravity, upside down, underwater, on practically any surface including crystal and in temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300 degrees C.

And what did the Russians do?  They used a pencil.

PelosiNow to be fair, many who are burdened with Delusional Effectiveness Disorder are fevered with the most benevolent of intentions.  In such benign cases, this unfortunate affliction is indicated by a distinct absence of malice often complicated by limited mental acuity, where genuine enthusiasm, however misguided, reflects a sincere attempt to boldly demonstrate that something (i.e., anything) is being done. The problem is that typically the “something” involves a flurry of activity that, while perhaps appearing impressive on the surface, contributes little in the way of substantive results.  It’s activity for the sake of activity with a focus on action rather than the accomplishment.  This reminds me of the adage we jokingly followed in business school when preparing case presentations: “If you can’t make it good, at least make it pretty.”  Form over substance.

Sadly, however, Delusional Effectiveness Disorder is more often manifested in those primarily interested in self promotion rather than misguided enthusiasm.  These individuals are convinced that advancement will be rewarded to those demonstrating a maelstrom of activity (they’ll call it initiative).  They are masters of deception, flawlessly executing their political song and dance.  Their objective is the glorification of process – their process – rather than a measure of true accomplishment.  But what is value of initiative in the absence of achievement?  Ironically, if these people worked half as hard at actually accomplishing something as they do demonstrating how busy they are, how hard they work, and how important they are to the organization, they might truly achieve great success.  And in what is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all, managers in many organizations fall under the spell of this thinly veiled farce, enabling and encouraging DED induced behavior by celebrating “initiative” rather than meaningful achievement or contribution.  While the desire to recognize such initiative is presumably well intended, the effect of poisoning the morale of those with greater substance is nevertheless profound.

What are we to do?  Entire books have been dedicated to managing strategically in a highly politicized environment.  Capable, effective leaders with a well defined vision of success find no distraction by subordinates infected with DED.  They recognize that substance presents itself in many forms, sometimes very subtle, and they reward achievement.  They coach through behaviors that are unproductive to the individual, team, and organization, and re-focus efforts to the attainment of broader objectives.

Fortunately, Delusional Effectiveness Disorder is not usually contagious.  In fact, those infected are typically held in leprotic contempt and shunned by peers.  While superiors often swoon with a temporary sense of euphoria, the effect wears off as time and transparency take their toll.