People Usually Flail before they Crater

I've commented before in this blog about how some (most?) subordinates tend to hide problems until they become big, festering wounds, and how this is a problem for supervisors.

But it isn't just an issue for a boss to deal with -- it is an organizational problem.  One that is firmly rooted in our own capacity for self-deception.  Call in unbridled optimism, or perhaps delusional positivism, whatever you name it, it's dangerous.

This is a problem I sometimes found myself falling victim to.  It usually starts with complete and total commitment to an idea, particularly if that commitment is in the face of stiff opposition.  In my case, my biggest vulnerabilities were in acquisitions I advocated, or people I championed.  The problem is caused by the huge, overt commitment you must make at that stage in the project -- tying your ego to the project.  In a sense, you "become" the goal just to get the damned thing approved.

Later, when things start to go sideways, you start to look for a ray of hope to keep yourself encouraged.  For example, once I championed a new manufacturing method, and had to make some tough hurdles (financial and physical) to achieve project's targets.  One of the project's key elements, a new welding technique, early on started having problems.  Instead of going to our back-up plan immediately (which would have looked like a "loss"), I insisted we keep hammering away at the preferred method.  There were little bits of positive news, which I grasped like a life-ring, that kept me going down that path far too long.  Of course, the results were much worse than if I'd just been logical and rational, and punted on the new method right away.

And that's the profile -- holding onto hope beyond hope, until it is too late to do anything but crash and burn.  I had a similar experience with a general manager I put in place in a troubled acquisition.  The guy seemed to be the perfect fit, and he tested extremely well on all the profile tests we put him through.  I wanted to believe, and needed to believe in him.

Unfortunately, he didn't  know what he was doing.  He created problem after problem by his short term actions, while continuing to sell me on his long term vision for the business.  In the end, he had to be removed, and the business was in much worse shape than if I had acted sooner.

How the company handles failure and punishment is a key factor in this behavior.  When the firm searches for the guilty (and often punishes the innocent!), people are much more likely to hold onto hope that "everything will somehow work out," and keep plugging away at a hopeless cause.  It's a strong argument for companies focusing on what went wrong in the process, rather than who's guilty, when a problem crops up.  That orientation will certainly encourage earlier disclosure of problems, and less flailing and cratering.

But part of the behavior is inherent in the person, too.  Highly achievement-oriented people don't typically do well with failure.  They are prone to falling into the cycle of "Polly-Anna-ish" positivity that leads ultimately to a gigantic mess.


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If you enjoy the ideas presented in my blog posts, then check out my novels. Corporate Thrillers LEVERAGEINCENTIVIZE, and DELIVERABLES all present extensions of my basic experiences in the world of business.