listed companies are under huge pressure to produce continuously improving results four times a year. The fear of not making the numbers is pervasive because of the expected kneejerk reaction on the share price. If growth (new markets, increased productivity and so on) is not achievable, then other, more pernicious policies take root to give the appearance of continuous growth. The challenge with these policies, such as indiscriminate, company-wide percentage cost cuts, travel and training bans, is that employees lose a sense of control, as HQ-ordered cuts appear unpredictably. The ability to plan is reduced, the feeling of being helpless increases and initiative wanes. Yet we need motivated employees with initiative to take the local decisions that work in local markets.
Perfectionism Perfectionism often starts from the noblest of ambitions – to do the best possible and provide high levels of service and product. But getting things right is very diﬀerent from making them perfect. People striving for flawlessness set higher and higher performance
I recently worked with an international company where the chief financial officer had to sign off personally on bottled water being served in any meeting standards, accompanied by increasingly critical self-evaluations. On an individual level, perfectionism is often accompanied by psychological disorders like depression. On an organizational scale, mistakes are outlawed as everyone strives to get it right first time. Employees are afraid to be in the wrong, afraid to make a mistake, afraid of being blamed and afraid to take chances. Risk-taking, experimentation and innovation disappear.
Dialogue Q2 2018
The third on the list is intellectualism, which is defined in the dictionary as ‘the exercise of the intellect at the expense of the emotions’. Being smart is not a bad thing – we need big brains to cope with the complexity of a globally connected business world. The challenge here is that human beings are a complex mixture of the rational and the irrational; of IQ and EQ; of intellect and emotions. We know that the most eﬀective leaders tell stories more than present pages of facts and figures, and appeal to the heart to motivate employees. A world driven solely by intellect is a cold and inhuman place. But how does this generate fear? If we inhabit a
smart world, we need to be smart and be seen to be smart. Analysis, reasoning and logic prevail. Intellectual cut and thrust can leave individuals feeling clever or, if on the losing side, diminished and foolish. And trying to run an irrational world through logic can lead to failure and increased feelings of inadequacy. I remember working with one chief executive who wanted to encourage contributions from every employee. I watched as he lost his temper and intellectually decimated an employee in public. At that point I realized why he couldn’t get ideas out of people.
Pugilism Pugilism next. This means a culture of sparring and fighting. In these organizational cultures, competition is seen as a way to improve individual performance and so drive higher levels of organizational performance. Handled well, it does just that. An Olympic rowing team gets better because each team member competes to be in the boat and then competes to be the best in the boat. Because they always keep the purpose of what they are doing in mind (winning the gold medal), individuals compete so that the team as a whole gets better. The challenge is that this clear sightline through to organizational purpose can get scrambled and lost in a business. The company may be too large, communication can be too patchy, or disagreement among senior leaders can all blur understanding of why the organization is doing what it does and how an individual is contributing towards this. So competing for the organization to do better can too easily deteriorate into competing with my peers so I achieve more or look better. This is only exacerbated by the tournament model of leadership development: in a pyramid, it’s essentially a knockout contest. So an individual’s fears range from not doing as well as peers, right through to losing their job. It’s an ‘I win-you lose’ world.
Hierarchicalism And lastly, hierarchicalism – I know, clumsy word, driven by my desire to have symmetry in the isms! Hierarchies are natural – put any group of humans together and a hierarchy will emerge. The business world has been trying to reduce its number of layers under a variety of initiatives for the last 30 years, flattening and delayering as much as possible. Yet hierarchy remains a fact of life for most in work. It’s an eﬃcient way of organizing to get work done. Yet when overdone, it becomes a problem. Lengthened hierarchies mean senior managers become remote leaders. Good news speeds upwards, bad news is buried in case the boss gets angry. Remote leaders lose touch with what’s actually going on in the business. At the top of organizations with extended hierarchies, it’s all too easy for the most senior people to become arrogant – top