In the world of business, there are more clones than you might imagine. It is the rare organization that steps out of the herd to become remarkable. This illusion of safety creates apathy and mediocrity in most organizations while the leaders struggle to find excellence amidst the decay of the ordinary. As a student of organizational leadership, I analyze the similarities and special characteristics that differentiate one company from another. What makes one organization shine while others seem so content with remaining average? The most likely answer is fear. But the answer is, of course, much more complex. Fear of failure transcends the spectrum of our awareness. There is comfort and even safety in the mediocrity of our existence. Therefore, what it takes to leave the comfort of the pack becomes very rare.

If others are doing it a certain way, then that is the proven methodology.  Anything else seems too risky and we would much rather let another organization go first.  There might be an inordinate amount of benefit to taking the risk, but our comfort zone limits both our thinking and our actions.

These “Fatal 10” are some common trends that prevent organizations from shattering the limitations of the organizational comfort zone.  Most companies are affected by many but not necessarily all of the trends.  And, if you feel like this is describing your company, it is purely coincidental.  Following are these trends in no particular order:

1.     No focused internal marketing effort:  A common unifying message to clarify mission, vision, and values must be communicated to employees daily through at least five mediums.  The most common are email, text messages, internal video, posters, and message boards.  Be creative with this, as it takes a focused campaign to internally “sell” your team on the direction of your organization.  A message must be communicated over and over so that when a decision point occurs, the team will act in a way that supports the message of the organization.  Remember, decision making is easy when values are clear.


2.    Failure to “turn-over” key leadership positions:  Too often, leadership becomes complacent and comfortable with the status quo.  The safety of the present is intoxicating and limits the need to constantly fight for a position on the team.  Exceptional organizations understand that performance must remain the focus for existence on the team.  The need to feel threatened is a highly motivating factor.  No one has a right to a position and must earn that position through performance.  Anything else starts to creep toward entitlement.  An entitled organization becomes extremely weak over time, as the incentive to excel is slowly replaced with a tolerance for existence.


3.    Undervalue for learning and development:  Myopic organizations view training as a necessary evil rather than an opportunity to create a competitive advantage.  In these organizations, training is seen as an expense rather than an investment.  Ironically, when times are at their worst and training is needed the most, the budget is slashed or eliminated all together.  When people are asked to do more, they are not given the tools to be successful.  In today’s employment landscape, with an entering workforce that will not likely stay more than two years, training for competence is essential to get the most from each member before they decide to leave your organization.  Today’s dominant, younger workforce will be attracted to the “learning organization” simply because of the flow of information.  The alternative is a “dummying down” effect created by organizations that do not develop people.  A common excuse is that the employee may leave once they are developed.  The alternative is not developing them and keeping them.  The result is a dumber organization.


4.    Innovation is not a deliberate effort:  Innovation is often a conceptual idea that is relegated to the research and development function of an organization.  Simply put, most organizations stumble into innovation.  Making each employee change how they do what they do is a powerful incentive.  In others words, don’t rate them for how they do the job, rate them for how they change it.


5.    Candor is discouraged:  Do not ask me if you do not want an answer.  Many organizations are not good at accepting internal feedback and even worse at dealing with it.  Often, the employee voicing an opportunity to improve is label as a complainer.  Silence while we “tow the company line” is preferred to constructive criticism.  This creates an environment that promotes the passive-aggressive nature that can exist in all of us.  Unfortunately, the best solutions often exist with the employees doing the work.  When ideas for improvement are offered, they get filtered before they reach a level with the authority to make the changes.  As a result, many organizations pay consultants to tell them what they already know.  It takes skill to both deliver constructive feedback as well as deal with the suggestion.  If leaders are not taught “how” to handle opportunities for improvement, the flow of information will simply stop.


6.    Undervalue the human element:  Some organizations have become extremely cynical when it comes to the human contribution.  The perceptive value of people has become so low that they are like interchangeable parts.   Accountability has been replaced by blame in a self-fulfilling prophecy that good people are simply not out there.  The willingness to settle for underperformers begets more underperformers and slowly the collective talent is very low for the organization.  Employees become tired of working next to someone who makes just as much or more than they do but do not do anything.


7.    Focus is on management not leadership:  When the line becomes blurred between the two concepts, organizations will struggle to find a sense of direction.  Management is a title bestowed upon the individual by the organization.  While leadership is a title bestowed upon the individual by the follower.  In other words someone must want to follow another in order for leadership to exist.  Most companies manage the activity of others, while remarkable organizations inspire others to act in a way they might never have before.  Managers operate in a black and white world where there is no gray area.  Leaders understand that life and opportunity usually exists within the gray area.  Leaders understand that risk equals return.  Mediocrity is following a policy blindly.  Excellence is when we understanding exactly how to apply that policy to a particular situation.


8.    Failure is a bad thing:  Honest mistakes must truly be accepted if people are expected to perform at a higher level.  When failure is viewed as a negative event, mediocrity becomes the result.  People afraid to fail will not execute at the highest level.  Honest mistakes are characterized as people attempting to do the “right” thing and something bad happening.  Discouraging this failure only leads to apathy and inaction.  Both are extremely limiting for an organization.  Repeated failures or failure as a result of poor judgment are not synonymous with honest mistakes.  We must learn from our mistakes and be attempting to do the right thing when we fail.  This creates a learning opportunity and makes the organization stronger.


9.    Work is not a fun place:  The ability to become strengthened by our environment is powerful for each of us.  I am convinced that some organizations have had the “fun” surgically removed.  We spend most of our waking lives in the jobs we utilize to earn a living or feed our economic engine.  When the work environment is negative, collective morale becomes low and productivity drops.  People are simply more productive when they are happy.  Yet, some companies seem to do everything in their power to reduce morale.  They cannot see that people will work harder, give more time, and do better work when they are happy on the job.  Sadly, morale is irrelevant in the minds of the struggling managers among us.


10. Individual effort is not appreciated.  We must recognize the effort that leads to results.  In other words, successful organizations tend to focus on leading indicators rather than trailing indicators.  Rewarding effort leads to more results.  Rewarding results may be rewarding those that simply got lucky.  Inadvertently, we can actually punish and reward the wrong people when we focus on trailing indicators.  People need to be appreciated for their efforts in order to keep exerting the very same effort.  Without sincere appreciation, most people will exert only the minimum effort required to get the job done.


In large organizations these fatal trends are more likely to be departmental rather than organizational.  Thus, they may be hidden from collective view.  Developing the ability to evaluate each of these with some quantitative measure allows organizations to improve over time.  Culture change takes time and deliberate effort.  Change by implication is required for improvement to take place.  We cannot improve without changing.  You cannot keep doing the same things and expect different results.  Your organization’s ability to adapt to change is the key to excellence.

Källa: John Grubbs, ”The Fatal 10”

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