Most business professionals who rise to the senior ranks of an organization do so because they are extremely driven and frequently very bright. And while personal drive and intelligence are what got them to this point in their career it is often times not sufficient to succeed at this level. One area that I have witnessed many leaders stumble is when their expectations don’t match the realities of their organization and their striving for excellence outpaces their team’s ability to delivery satisfactory.
Over the last few weeks I have spoken with several friends who were all struggling with the sheer volume of work that they have had to do. With the economic downturn, most employers have thinned their ranks and have been slow to grow their hiring. With a few exceptions, the only hiring has been the necessary backfill hires for people who have left the company on their own. With uncertainty around the timing of an economic recovery most companies continue to defer any plans for growing their full-time workforce.
The struggle with this strategy comes when there are fewer people to do the work with the same amount of work. The truth is that most companies are terrible at stopping unnecessary work. The rational goes that if it was determined to be important at one time then it must still be important. Or perhaps everyone is too busy working to take the time necessary to determine what work is still important so the work just goes on. Thus, if there is the same amount of work, fewer people to do that work, and a finite hours in the day – what else changes? The quality of the work?
In one of my previous roles I had the opportunity to work for an extremely bright boss. Between her intelligence and effort she had an absolute mastery of the business. You could see it in exchanges with executives or in our weekly staff meetings where she would ask probing questions that were one or two moves ahead on the chessboard. While her mental feats were quite impressive they also became problematic.
The challenge was that her quest for perfection ignored the reality of the satisfactory. When she asked why something wasn’t done a certain way she had a very valid question. Of course that would have been the “perfect” answer, but with the pace of the work the team didn’t have the time to sort out the perfect answer. In fact, they frequently barely had time to sort out the satisfactory answer.
I have witnessed this behavior create a toxic work environment where few things are ever good enough, team moral plummets, and high performers who are accustomed to winning quickly burn out. What would have made a difference? Maybe a little more of the “Thanksgiving spirit” would have helped:
As we prepare for our Thanksgiving meal with family and friends, maybe we can all be a little more accepting of satisfactory and a little less expecting of perfection?
Update (11/26): I was thinking about this post over the holiday weekend and remembered someone who had influenced my thinking on this topic of expectations: Benjamin Zander. Mr. Zander is the boy whose family escaped Nazi Germany in 1937 and went on to become the acclaimed conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. He is a wonderful public speaker with a great message of “Give everyone an A” which is not about academic “grade-flation” but instead a perspective on how we approach other people. Take five minutes and see how he describes this approach.
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Nice piece Matt. I remember reading a Wired a while back, they had written about “why great leaders are *%cks”. What the article failed to mention the other 95% of business leaders who are equally successful being humble and recognizing they are simply the conduit for talent versus being the talent.
Looking forward to reading more.
Thanks Chris! HBR had run a similar story a couple of months back and it was infuriating. A faulty hypothesis plus poor research equals wrong conclusions. A book with some great insight into this topic is Susan Cain’s Quiet… on the power of introverts (frequently more humble) in a world obsessed with being strong extroverts. Thanks again for your feedback!
I was thinking about this post as I read the Dilbert cartoon from today’s newspaper. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good” from French philosopher Voltaire.
Awesome article, Matt! So true – I see this every day.
Thanks Donna! Unfortunately I had to learn this lesson myself a few years back.