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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Parental Responsibility in Social Training

Have you ever witnessed children running wild in a restaurant or retail store while the parents, apparently oblivious to the chaos, completely disregard the effect this behavior has on everyone else around them?  Of course the child’s behavior is not really the issue is it?  After all, the actions of children are merely a reflection of the parent’s priorities and values.  Unruly, precocious, undisciplined children left to explore the world on their own terms are simply another symptom of a larger socio-cultural trend that inflicts many adults today – a warped sense of entitlement compounded by a general lack of personal responsibility.

As a parent myself, I simply don’t accept the notion of the overwrought mom or dad, out in public trying to enjoy a family meal or finishing up errands with kids that are overly tired or bored.  Children and their needs should always be the parents’ first priority, but this is often not the case.  The parent’s agenda far too often comes first – the dinner out, the gift to buy, the dress to try on – all the while with kids in tow.  I can’t tell you how many times my wife and I have left a cart full of groceries in the store because one of our toddlers was having a melt down, or how many meals one of us finished alone in a restaurant while the other waited in the car with one of our unruly monsters.  Our needs, our schedule, our time together – all came second to our kids.

I also don’t accept the parental ‘philosophy’ of untethered social training, in which children are allowed to explore the world around them with minimal restraint or direction, the justification for which is to encourage creativity and individual expression.  Seriously, give me a break!  I see parents every single day who evidently subscribe to this theory, either by design or through the abdication of their parental responsibility to provide guidance and leadership.  Truthfully, I think many parents today are simply too lazy or too consumed with their own personal desires to provide meaningful parental leadership to their own children.  Instead of owning up to the tough role of parent, they instead try to be ‘friends’ with their kids.  Children need their parents to be role models who hold them accountable for their actions, not ‘friends’ who condone destructive behavior and shield them from the consequences of their actions.

Children are naturally inquisitive, energetic, and reckless. They are also inherently kind, honest, sensitive, and generous. However, they are unfortunately also a product of their environment. Values such as respect for others, self-discipline, and good old fashioned manners must be instilled and practiced, starting at home. A child’s behavior is a direct and unequivocal reflection of the parent’s behavior and values. Children are taught, or perhaps more accurately, allowed to learn and practice disruptive, disrespectful, and inappropriate behavior.

The mere fact that some parents feel that ‘everywhere’ is a training ground for social interaction, as if that somehow defers the parent’s role, neglects one of the core responsibilities that parents have for raising their children.  Training for social interaction begins and ends at home and should define the boundaries for what is acceptable when out in public.  The “everywhere” argument implies that the world shares responsibility for training children. I disagree.

Many adults, particularly young adults in their 20s and 30s appear to believe that the world about them exists solely for their comfort, convenience, and satisfaction. Perhaps this is the result of a couple of generations of economic prosperity, but this particular demographic seems to feel that they are owed something – abject servility in restaurants and stores, instant gratification and satisfaction, and freedom from personal responsibility and accountability. For the most part, they’ve not experienced serious difficulty in their lifetime – no cold war nuclear threat, no painful economic hardship, and very little in the way of any significant personal sacrifice. They’ve never spent hours in line for gas on odd days of the month, or worried about a mandatory draft. They’ve been too busy enjoying the American dream, getting what they want when they want, and along the way have become morally complacent, materialistic, and hopelessly entitled.

I don’t know for sure exactly how this mindset became part of our culture. Maybe it was instilled by the parents of my own generation. Maybe it was the environment in which this latest generation grew up. Regardless, it is no wonder that so many of today’s children mirror those attitudes. It’s been bred into them. Children today reflect the same sense of entitlement that they see their parents demanding in their own interactions.  If a child breaks something, it’s the store’s fault for having it accessible. If the parents can’t “control” them, they excuse the behavior by saying the children are “uncontrollable” rather than accept responsibility for the fact that they are failing their children in this aspect of their development. Parents insist their kids have the “right” to run and play in public, to make as much noise as they want, to learn social interaction everywhere they go and regardless of the consequences for others around them.

So don’t blame the kids running between the tables in the restaurant or rolling on the floor in the retail store; they’re just children who learn from and emulate their parents.  It is the parents who are at fault.  It is the parents who should be asked to leave when children are behaving in a way that is disrespectful or inappropriate for their immediate environment.  Better yet, the parents should exercise good judgment and remove their children without having to be asked.

Social training should only take place in public places that are conducive to age (or maturity) specific interaction. This, of course, depends on the behavioral capacity of the child. Children who have been adequately taught appropriate behavior at home and who demonstrate appropriate behavior when out in public may well be able to handle a more sensitive adult environment.  In any case, there should be no carte blanche for public social training.  Unfortunately, the burden of discretion falls upon the parents, who themselves too often need remedial social training.

The Restoration of Tools and Refinement of People

I have a thing for old tools.  Not the ones with cords and plugs, mind you, but old hand tools that predate electricity.  The ones guided by hand, powered by muscle, carefully honed and meticulously cared for to retain their edge and effectiveness at doing the job for which they were intended.  These are elegant, tactile tools of history, character and quality – tools upon which the livelihood of their owner depended.  These tools didn’t sit collecting dust on shelves in garages, used casually or occasionally and allowed to rust.  These were tools of journeymen and tradesmen, carpenters, cabinetmakers, shipbuilders, and carriage makers – tools that were passed down through multiple generations.  Every one has a story to tell; every paint spot, dent, ding, scratch and chip reflects a different point in time and a different job completed.

Sadly, most of these tools eventually fell victim to post-WWII modern industrialization when mass production, cheap technology, and the population explosion shifted consumer culture from quality and durability to speed and ease of use.  Today, we’ll spend $200 on a cordless drill and toss it out when the battery no longer holds a charge.  All the while, the noble tools of iron, steel, and wood that built this country sit quietly idle, rusting away in barns and workshops and garages.  Few know how to use them, fewer still know how to restore them to functional condition, and just about everyone else wonders why bother doing either.  I am one of the relative few who does both.

Opinions on the restoration of old tools vary widely and are frequently debated within their communities of interest.  I personally believe that less is more when it comes to restoration. I like the idea of retaining a tool’s character – its scars and marks from use, its patina, etc.  I believe a tool should be cleaned and maintained in the same manner as the original craftsman who owned it would have done. A hundred years ago, these tools represented the livelihood of the owner. They were relatively expensive and the woodworkers who owned them relied on them to make a living. They would not have allowed rust to accumulate and would have cleaned and oiled them regularly.

Refining people is not unlike the restoration and care of vintage tools.  Regardless of age or experience, there are always rough edges to be eased, working mechanisms in need of adjustment, and business implements to be sharpened to produce the desired result.  People in an organization require constant tuning and ongoing maintenance in order to function at their peak capacity.  Good leaders exist, not simply as masters of the tools they wield.  Rather in the manner of fine craftsmen, they are charged with refining, tuning, and honing the tools in their care, through the edification and development of the men and women they lead.

The refinement of these human tools requires a firm but gently touch.  In time, their mettle (pun intended) is reflected in a patina developed through experience, accomplishment, and occasional failure.  Skills develop through hands on instruction and are shaped by practice.  The quality of results improves as the tool is tuned to achieve the task intended.   Adjustments are made, impurities cleaned, and accomplishment is rewarded until eventually the tool attains a confidence, character, and integrity all its own.  Shavings are gossamer thin, lines are cut straight and true, and revealed in every achievement is the precision of the tool and the influence of its custodian.

Without constant care, tools become dulled by use – corrosion slowly creeps in, alignment is eventually lost, and the ability of the tool to perform as expected is compromised.  Just as the journeyman of 100 years ago was personally responsible for the care and maintenance of his tools, so are the business leaders of people today.  In a culture where tools are deemed disposable, easily replaced by a trip to the local home center, leaders of people cannot afford to be so cavalier.  These human tools represent the livelihood of the organization. They are relatively expensive and the companies that employ them rely on them to sustain and grow the business. They must not be allowed to fall idle and rust.

Five Fundamental Principles of Service Excellence

To say that customer service is virtually non-existent today would be a comical understatement.  It seems everywhere we turn the quality of service we receive is inconsistent at best, from the waiters and sales people who ignore us to business managers who view us as interruptions.  I believe the root of the problem is not so much one of employee indifference; this is merely a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself.  The real problem is a systematic failure on the part of companies and their managers to see beyond the transaction, make decisions based on intellect verses emotion, and empower their employees to be an advocate for the customer rather than ‘defender’ of the company.

Most people, if they are at all engaged in their job, want to do well.  Likewise, all companies want to be successful, and understand the value and necessity of happy customers.  So, where is the disconnect?  I believe it’s with the middle and lower level leadership.  It’s not much of a stretch to conclude that employee attitudes toward customers are a reflection of the culture created by management within the store, restaurant, or department.  I suppose there are a myriad of reasons, everything ranging from indifference and ignorance to a misguided notion of protecting the financial bottom line.  Just last week my wife asked to speak with the general manager of our dealership over a mechanical problem with our year old car that the staff was unwilling to rectify.  His response after listening to her complaint was to accuse her of being confrontational.  It is no wonder his staff was so unhelpful.

Leaders at every level bear the responsibility for maintaining a culture of service excellence, communicating expectations, and monitoring performance.  This requires personal interaction, not only with employees, but also with the customers.  Leaders can’t lead from behind a desk or though emails.  They have to get out of their offices, spend time along side their employees and participate in constant face to face interaction.  This is why you see managers in finer restaurants stop by your table to ask if everything was okay.  They understand the value of personal attention to their staff, customers, and business.  Philip K. Wrighley, chairman of the world’s largest chewing gum company, famously relayed the following story: “I went into our New York office one day and they asked who was calling. I told them it didn’t make a bit of difference. It might be a guy wanting to buy some gum – and that’s all that mattered.”

Below I’ve attempted to summarize service excellence in five fundamental principles.  Perhaps I’ve oversimplified it, but I don’t think so.  In fact, isn’t that the point?  Superior customer service really isn’t all that complicated or expensive.  Everyone should try it.

  1. Customer service is never an ‘exception’ or an ‘accommodation’
    These two words should be removed from our vocabulary.  Meeting (not to mention exceeding) a customer’s expectations should be a matter of principle.  Make decisions with enthusiasm, not reluctance, demonstrating a spirit of genuine appreciation instead of concession.
  2. Delighting a customer is a personal opportunity to be the ‘hero’
    Be the customer’s advocate in every interaction.  Customers should see us as their personal partner, not simply a representative of the company, and certainly never an adversary.  It is our job to get to ‘yes’.  Regardless of the situation, every satisfied customer reflects a personal success, and every disappointed customer reflects a personal failure.
  3. Customer service does not cost money, it earns future business
    We get far too wrapped up in our perceived sense of what is ‘right’ or ‘just’ when making service related decisions.  Any costs incurred in delighting a customer are literally insignificant compared to the goodwill and future business we gain.  Whether or not we feel they deserve it is irrelevant.  Customer service is not a battle to be won or lost, nor is it an affront to our integrity.  Better to give in to 10 thieves than to lose one legitimate customer.
  4. The solution is always more memorable than the problem
    Problems are going to occur – products will break, deadlines will be missed, mistakes will be made.  It is how well we anticipate and resolve our customers’ problems that influences their perception of our company and their decision to give us their future business.  Never leave a customer with an unresolved problem; always initiate a solution.
  5. The customer doesn’t have to ‘be’ right for us to ‘make it right’
    It’s as simple as this… no matter who is at fault, no matter what it costs, no matter what it takes – make it right for the customer.

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

Building and Sustaining High Performing Sales Teams

Portrait of a High Performing Team
Almost everyone who works with others wants either to be a member of a high performing team, or to lead a high performing team.  In fact, I bet 9 out of every 10 managers I’ve ever spoken with have claimed their teams were high performing.  Yet, when asked about the performance of individual team members, these same managers invariably cite a litany of “typical” shortcomings.

While I hesitate to question the self proclaimed assessment of another manager’s team without seeing them in action for myself, I have to wonder how they came to their conclusion.  How can a high performing team be comprised of individuals with performance issues?  Can the diversity of performance strengths and capabilities within a team actually make the overall team stronger, despite certain individual weaknesses?  And how is it that these managers don’t ask themselves these same questions?

To be sure, individuals with performance problems are not high performers.  That is not to say that an employee must be perfect; indeed, everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  There is a distinction, however, between weaknesses and performance problems.  Strengths and weaknesses between team members are like pieces of a puzzle.  All the pieces must fit together to complete the picture.    In the strongest teams, members should complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  In fact, assembling a team in which there is diversity of strengths should be a priority.

There’s no single recipe for building a high performing team.  The variables are simply too great.  On the other hand, there are clearly common attributes that successful teams manifest, and at the same time behavioral patterns that destroy a team’s effectiveness and their capacity for achievement.

So, what does a high performing team look like?  It’s really quite simple.  While individual strengths may vary, high performing teams exhibit many (hopefully most) of the same qualities of highly effective, influential team leaders.  At the highest level…

  • They complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • They exhibit integrity and self discipline, both individually and collectively.
  • They have a balanced sense of selflessness (teamwork) and drive for personal achievement.
  • They are responsible and accountable – to their leader and each other.
  • They are enthusiastic and self-motivated.
  • They are individually and collectively aligned with the company’s vision.

Of course there are many other skills and traits that high performing teams must possess and demonstrate – effective communication, mutual trust, respect, etc., and of course they must work harmoniously together to achieve the task at hand.  Skills, however, can be taught, habits formed, and behaviors modified, while character and cultural fit are individual factors that are deeply ingrained.

High Performing Teams Begin with High Performing Individuals
Diversity, complementing strengths and skills, and achievement oriented members are all considerations when building or adding to an existing high performing team.  From a practical standpoint, assembling a high performance team begins with a thoughtful and well developed hiring process.  Recruiting often focuses on matching experience to a job specification. This is important where technical qualifications are concerned, but it will not necessarily identify people with high performance traits.  High performers are almost always high performers – wherever they work.

Who are your high performers?  According to a McKinsey & Company report on “The War for Talent,” top performing employees make a 50% to 100% greater contribution to organizations than do their less capable peers.[1] So ask yourself this, if you had to start from scratch, would you re-hire all the employees you currently have? If not, why?  If you could select from just 10% of your existing work force, who would you choose and why?

In my experience, the highest performing sales professionals demonstrate the following characteristics…

  • Achievement Oriented – Money shouldn’t be the goal, only a way of keeping score
  • Perpetually Optimistic – Doesn’t concede defeat, doesn’t accept no as an answer
  • Selling is a Lifestyle – A way of life, not just a job – they never stop selling
  • Understand Customer Motivation – People buy on emotion and excitement, not logic and reason
  • Walk in the Customers’ Shoes – Sensitive to customer’s needs vs. their own (understands difference between ability to buy and desire to buy – validates the customer’s desire)
  • Leverages the Strengths of Others – Those around them

Strategic Hiring Decisions
Research on hiring decisions reveals that people tend to hire applicants with whom they share the strongest personal connection, i.e. those with similar outlooks, mannerisms, personalities, and ideas.  Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Kanter calls this phenomenon “homosocial reproduction.”[2] While this may be just fine in some cases, the implication is obvious in others.  As Stanford Professor Robert Sutton indelicately puts it, “…assholes will breed like rabbits.”[3]

That’s an extreme (albeit accurate) example, but practically speaking, everyone including the most effective managers has areas of weakness.  While we certainly don’t want to compound weaknesses, the inverse is also true.  To use the puzzle metaphor again, whitewashing over weaknesses by cloning strengths is like trying to put together a puzzle in which all the pieces are the same size and shape.  The strongest teams are comprised of diverse personalities with complementary skills, and they use this to their advantage.  Reduce the risk of poorly influenced hiring decisions by having several managers interview a candidate and collectively participate in the decision process.

A Framework for Success
There’s a saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”  A comprehensive plan helps hiring managers at each decision point by giving focus and structure to the process. With the following four-step plan, not only will you have the highest probability of making good hiring decisions, you’ll also establish a framework of success for ongoing team development.

1. Recruiting and Hiring for Excellence
Leading a high performance sales team naturally begins with the people that you hire.  You simply cannot afford to settle for the best “available” applicant, you have to find the right person for the job and team.  In building a high performing team, whether staff or management, qualification criteria should be closely examined before you ever run an employment ad or interview an applicant.  Managers tend to focus heavily on education, job experience, and presence.  These are all important, but also look closely at temperament, interpersonal skills, and character.  Hire for fit within the team.  You can always train for skill (you will probably have to anyway), but trying to train for cultural fit is an uphill battle.

2. Cultivating Success

Regardless of individual successes, a sales team is only as strong as its weakest performer.  A successful high performing team depends on each member pulling his or her weight, contributing to and complementing the team, leveraging its strengths and adding value through individual performance.  Cultivating team success involves addressing deficiencies, identifying and overcoming obstacles, and gradually redefining the very meaning of success in an existing sales environment.  This may involve rooting out underperformers, holding them to a higher level of accountability, and removing them if they are unable to meet established standards.

3. Maintaining Performance Standards
Aggressive and inclusive performance development is a key component to managing and leading high performing teams.  An integral part of the performance management process, regular coaching, feedback, and performance assessment measured against peer comparison benchmarks provide exceptionally flexible and meaningful tools for quantifying and qualifying employee performance.  In situations where progressive discipline is warranted, a consistent approach using readily available performance criteria ensures a fair and actionable case for warnings and dismissal.

4. Nurturing a High Performance Culture
I previously discussed in detail creating and nurturing a Culture of Alignment.  Developing a high performing sales culture requires a considerable investment in time, but it’s not rocket science.  You have to realize, however, that any such move to alter the culture of your store and team must be carefully planned and executed.  It will not happen overnight.  In fact, it might take a few years.  But the investment is well worth the effort.


[1] Fishman, Charles. The War for Talent. Fast Company, 2007

[2] Kanter, Rosabeth. Men and Women of the Corporation. New York: Basic Books, 1977

[3] Sutton, Robert. The No Asshole Rule. New York: Business Plus, 2007

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.