Classic: Corporate Inefficiency, Anonymity

Originally Published 9/23/2011

Meet the minimum.  Serve your sentence.  And if you do so, you are entitled to praise, financial reward, and satisfaction.

 Or at least job security.

This attitude is present in many individual contributors in larger corporations and it invades the management ranks as well.  Such employees occupy the ranks of the voluntary anonymous – unambitious, uninterested, unwilling to lift a finger, they are working to collect a paycheck and nothing more.  They are the ones most likely to say "not my job" when asked to do something.

Being anonymous is all about keeping one’s head down.  Flying under the radar.  Being an invisible cog in a giant machine.  Often, an anonymous individual is a specialist of some sort whose work contribution is difficult to assess, and whose work content is a mystery to others.

 And they can be found in droves in the ranks of large corporations.

 The anonymous are characterized by a number of behaviors:  obsessive clock-watching, the offering of no new ideas or improvements, a dearth of volunteering to assist in solving any problem, and often a laser focus on the details of what their job descriptions say they must do (and what the same document leaves out.)

 In my experience, these employees either don't "get it" that they fail to contribute to moving the organization ahead or they simply don’t care.

 Staying in their box

While it is possible that a person can skate anonymously by in a small company such behavior is rarely successful.  Small firms can’t tolerate the loss of efficiency when an employee wants to define his world as a tiny box that he can perpetually live within.  And in a small company, there simply isn’t anywhere to hide.

 As an owner of a small business, I’ve concluded that employee versatility is absolutely critical to my organization’s success.  Theoretically, specialists in narrow areas would be nice to have, but small businesses rarely have enough work in a constricted discipline to keep a specialist busy.  If an employee is unwilling to extend themselves into other departments and functions, they represent an inflexible expense of limited value.  While it’s occasionally possible I might be backed into a corner and find it necessary to hire such a person, I try to avoid doing so like the plague.

 Because my small company just can’t afford such people.

 If I somehow inherited such an employee, I would quickly become aware of her nature.  No matter how busy an employee tried to look, in a small company management is keenly aware of their contribution and the job's required work.  When somebody attempts to slough off work on others or fails to apply full effort, they are replaced.

 Specialization

 Throwback cover of NCP which appeared on the original edition of the book.

Throwback cover of NCP which appeared on the original edition of the book.

In this respect, big companies are quite different from their smaller brethren.  One of the elements of success in larger corporations is the fine division of labor and deep specialization.  While this provides large corporations a tremendous depth of knowledge, specialization works against the large corporation when an employee seeks anonymity.  Most managers know less about the job elements and required effort levels of a specialist’s work than their subordinate.  It doesn’t take much effort for a specialist to buffalo his boss into believing that the work is much more labor intensive than it really is.

 And larger companies, being much more rule-bound, find themselves hampered when trying to address the challenges presented by anonymous employees.  These include hard start, stop, and break times, detailed job descriptions, and formal evaluation systems.  I can’t count the times when a manager who wanted to terminate an inflexible, work-to-job-description, clock watcher was stopped by imperfectly crafted performance objectives and a history of adequate evaluations.

 In the small company, that person will most likely be gone before the manager can say “job description.”

 Why do they do it?

My guess is the desire for corporate anonymity is a combination of several things:  a focus on getting boxes checked in order to convince oneself that you are “doing your job,” a mental laziness which concedes "somebody" knows how all this "stuff" is supposed to work but figuring it out and making oneself more valuable is simply "not my responsibility,” and a general sense of entitlement which seems to infect a broad swath of our society.

 In some cases, there might also be a bit of “inability to cope with the complexities of life” thrown in, as well.

 Anonymous employees are generally unapologetic for their efficiency-sucking behaviors, apparently feeling they are following all the rules and regulations and thus should be free from any form of criticism.  Not too long ago I ran a blog post on clock watching (a classic anonymous employee behavior) and received numerous angry justifications from corporate goldbricks.

 Sure, they have a right to watch the clock and bolt for the exit as soon as the final minute of the day passes – as long as their employer tolerates such behavior.  If they worked for me such an employee would either quickly modify such behavior or they would be gone.  Small companies don’t have resources to waste on stubborn, entitled jerks.

 How it hits home

The impact to the large company is pretty obvious – anonymous employees contribute less (often far less), are usually out of alignment with the company's goals and objectives, and their behaviors typically bring down the morale of their co-workers.  In addition, they often take up a lot of management time.  Such employees significantly contribute to large corporate inefficiency.

 Although they will undoubtedly deny it.

 The anonymous appear to yearn for a well-ordered world, a place where their responsibilities are perfectly defined, their time is the only thing they commit, and where they are handsomely rewarded for doing as little as possible.  Unfortunately, that isn’t the real world.

 Anonymous employees tend to hunker down in pockets, hoping to become lost in the shuffle.  And the bigger the company, the more pockets of anonymous employees one is likely to find.

 Companies attempt to battle the anonymous employee through rallying speeches, compensation programs (like profit sharing), and other incentives intended to motivate employees to do more.  These programs reach a few anonymous employees – generally, at great expense – but they can only accomplish so much.  Corporate anonymity is a mantle many employees take on enthusiastically.  There is little the company can do about them other than to trade them for a future draft choice when the opportunity arises.

 Summary

Corporate anonymity contributes significantly to inefficiency in the large corporation, and it is a “disease” that is quite difficult to cure.  The over-specialization seen in large firms encourages the phenomena, placing managers over “experts” whose work they don’t understand.

 While attempts to encourage more engagement from the anonymous employee can be at least partially successful, the only way to eliminate this critical source of corporate inefficiency is to purge the organization of the anonymous and hope to avoid hiring more – a daunting task, indeed.

 Posts in the “Corporate Inefficiency” Series (Chronological Order)

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