How Selfishness Eats Growth
By Don Schmincke
At high altitudes,
selfishness kills climbers. Teams degrade into dysfunctional
rabbles, resources are horded or squandered, and it becomes “every
man for himself.” Today, during financially stressful times, such
behaviors look strangely familiar to managers. In both situations,
the danger of selfishness threatens profitable growth, and stalks
teams at every altitude. At high altitudes it can kill climbers, at
lower altitudes selfishness kills performance, projects, profits,
and possibilities. Postmortem business school case studies blame the
failures on reasons like strategic missteps or poor implementations
of good ideas. But digging deeper among the carcasses one finds that
selfishness alone drove the denial, avoidance, blindness, or
cover-ups until it was too late.
stress, growth requires sharpening the sword with high-performance
cultures and competitive strategy. But many fail when they forget
that: Selfishness eats revenue.
How Much Revenue is
Over ten thousand executives from 1997 to 2008 admitted selfish
behavior sucked 20 to 80 percent of productive time out of their
organizations. Fifteen minute meetings take an hour, projects become
chronically delayed and sales opportunities slip away as staff
protect sacred cows, blame each other, avoid accountability,
backstab, protect silos, pass the buck, and pursue other political
maneuvering. Unfortunately, companies miss measuring this damage to
productivity, quality, and speed.
can we afford the revenue losses from quality erosion, higher legal
exposure, lower competitive advantage, increased waste, employee
turnover, and poor morale? What’s a manager to do?
with a Passionate Saga:
The ancient Norse
used sagas – stories of gods, kings, and heroes – to create passion
in their people. Applying the same method in modern organizations
still leverages the leader’s power in aligning people toward a cause
higher than selfish agendas. When managers use a compelling saga to
drive fervor and zeal for a strategic result, selfish behavior
diminishes. Such sagas possess a number of common themes:
theme to beat an enemy, achieve an ideal or fulfill a purpose
goal to achieve, a challenging summit that needs to be conquered
A language that
drives performance, values and strategic focus, even in the face
of risk, sacrifice or pain
A context of
how success (or failure) will be defined
A focus on
strategic results, not selfish, territorial, gossipy, soap
statement, which spawns stories and legends that permeate an
no longer teach sagas. Instead they create visions, missions and
values. Great ideas but many of these turn out to be passionless
platitudes and empty content hanging on walls that fail to provide
the background for the struggle and pain, the triumph and sacrifice.
This explains why employees abandon their mission statements at the
first sign of distress – if they believed in them at all. Employees
fill these passionless vacuums with their own selfish, petty dramas.
But when leaders give people something to “die” for – to subjugate
their selfishness to – the result ends up re-engaging employees for
driving revenue growth. Organizations over the past century used
compelling sagas in their language when facing challenges during
start-ups, new markets, or financial crisis:
ordinary folks the chance to buy the same things as rich people.
Provide unlimited opportunity to women.
experience the emotion of competition, winning and crushing
competitors. (Nike’s saga today is, “Bring
inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” It
HP: To make
technical contributions for the advancement and welfare of
Coke: Put Coke
within arm’s reach.
Harley-Davison: Fulfill dreams through the experience of
Some label these as
missions or visions, but they have a saga-like component that
separates them from the more common, status-quo mission statements.
Passions aligning people toward high-performance behavior drive the
greatest achievements. If anyone doubts how this applies today, they
only need to review Obama’s presidential win. No matter which party
you voted for, Obama captured the hearts and minds of a country by
inspiring them in a time of the greatest pain and sacrifice. Only a
compelling saga drives this strategic drama. What’s driving your
company right now?
But if compelling
sagas are so effective at surviving the danger of selfishness, why
aren’t they used more often? Two reasons commonly show up:
experts earnestly promote positive, touchy-feely, optimistic
statements and shy away from the ugly, uncomfortable, and even
painful elements of the epic journey. Yet it is precisely the epic
journeys that drive passion.
2) One company’s
compelling saga may not inspire passion in another. In an age where
copying quick-fix ideas are all the rage, few companies take the
time to truly craft their own.
profitably during financially changing times by crafting a
strategically focused saga in your organization. The art of crafting
the strategy and the language that inspires it takes time and
perseverance, but the results historically prove the value in
sharpening the sword now in order to win tomorrow’s battles.
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