The penny dropped

July 26, 2020

The penny dropped one day over a beer with my co-founder, Lawrence Smith.

For those of you who may not know him, Lawrence is the inspiration for 90% of what we do (I am being generous to myself there) and the only person I have ever worked with who has been right about everything. His greatest gift however is not being right, but in still making you feel that the ideas, approaches and conclusions you have drawn are just as valid and he has built on all your thoughtfulness to take your idea and tweaked it just a little.

Listening to Lawrence in conversation is to receive moments of wisdom casually dropped into your lap like a sanctuary seeking ladybird. Something beautifully formed, easy to know, hardly any weight at all, delightful to see and instantly appealing.

Over the beer Lawrence was talking to me about an especially tricky individual that was making our work a little uncomfortable. I started having a bit of moan about him and wondering why anyone so unsuited to a role had been given the job in the first place.

Then Lawrence said “No one ever applied for a job wanting to fail in it. No one ever wants to come to work to perform badly.”

When this penny dropped, and I realised what he had just said, I knew I may have unfairly framed hundreds, may be thousands, of past conversations about performance and competency. It was salutary and I have never done it again since.

I think there are four significant factors that influence failure. Poor strategy, poor environment, poor implementation of strategy, and poor behaviour. In any team, in any workplace, an individual employee is, fairly, accountable for their behaviour, but it is the Executive leadership that is accountable for the other three factors.

If failing performance is a concern why is 100% of the remedial effort focussed on the individual? Is it any wonder that “performance management” feels unjust, overbearing and framed to be a negative experience? Is it any wonder that an individual might succumb over time to being surly, uncooperative and cynical?

It will be tempting at this point to remember the tiny handful of cases when an individual was a bad apple. I get that reaction and it is not unfair. However, there will be so many more people who have been unfairly maligned and labelled. Their only failure really was to stop pretending it was ok.

In kinder environments I hear management say “he’s not a bad person, just a round peg in a square hole”. This is only marginally better and it is still fundamentally lacking honesty. It would be improved considerably if management noted “He is a good person, but we have failed to find a way for him to shine.”

I would like to leave you with this thought – next time you are told by a colleague about an especially difficult member of their team, someone who isn’t competent or capable of performing at the level required, please do not jump on that employee too and assume the worst of them. Poor behaviour in the end is not to be tolerated and must be addressed. However, poor strategy, poor environments and more implementation of strategy should not to be tolerated either and should be addressed as well.

In the span of my career I think I have come across four or five toxic individuals and I am unrelenting in wanting to deal with them, not least for the terrible impact they have on others. However, the vast majority of people who have been labelled as uncooperating, change resistant, lacking energy, etc, etc, etc – have not failed, but have been failed by their leaders.

In a world that celebrates decisiveness, speed, and bold and ambitious machismo, hold a thought too for the weary, the long-serving, the reserved, the trapped and especially those who have a contrary view. Wisdom can be found in everyone, everywhere, not just in the alpha-lingua of market forces and in the expediency of the moment.

Take care. Paul x

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