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Marginal: On Protoplasmic Inertia

A friend of mine is exceedingly good at what he does for a living.

A friend of mine is exceedingly good at what he does for a living. He's better than most people I know who do what he does. He recently took a new job. The company he joined was producing a product that was right up his alley. Presumably, the managers who brought him on figured that he would be able to add value to their operation. The proverbial double-win.

In my friend's case, the problem was simple to describe but difficult to solve. The job is one in which one's performance is comparatively easy to assess. And it soon became clear to all involved that although he was a junior partner in the operation, his skills, talents and abilities far outstripped those of his seniors (not his "betters," as they fancied themselves). Consultants commonly hold forth with the proposition that if you are hiring people for your organization, you should be sure that you select people who are better than you are. That way you raise the organizational IQ. But as a practical matter, many managers avoid hiring people who are superior because those people represent a threat. It may be—gasp—that those people's work will show up the managers' work such that the people at the very top will decide that those managers are expendable. It means that the managers must increase the level of their game. And, I would submit, far too many managers have an entitlement mentality, one that says, in effect, "I've made it, and here I'll sit."

So what did the management do in the case of my friend? They simply, in effect, ignored him. They didn't take advantage of what he could do. They ran the business as usual. Oh, sure, this wasn't a case where they sat him in the corner and pretended that he didn't exist. They got what they figured was their salary's worth by putting him to work on tasks that needed to be done but which didn't in the least bit challenge what my friend could do. When I'd talk to him about his situation and tried to encourage him not to take it, he pointed out to me that (1) the organization has an existence that is larger than any individual, and that when he tried to push here to make a difference, the protoplasm simply bulged out there; (2) while it is all well and good for me to tell him not to deal with it, the marketplace wasn't one wherein one could readily get another job. I was both incensed and exasperated by this reaction: It's easy to recommend that people man the barricades when you know that you're nowhere near the front lines.

Eventually, my friend left that position. In point of fact, his leave-taking long preceded the point at which he cleaned out his desk. For weeks before that he was done. And the company he'd worked for went on. It could have been improved. Instead it pretty much remains the same. Which, arguably, means that it is diminished, not just because my friend is gone, but because the nature of the free market is such that there are other companies that realize they must truly get better and so people at all levels are working at it relentlessly.

Last December in this space I quoted John Waraniak, director of E-Business Speed at Johnson Controls, who said, "What do you get paid for? For being different." By which he means by being something with distinctive value. As things change, it is necessary to keep modifying that value. It is an endless demand. Since then, I have had time to reflect on that, not only in the context of my friend, but in the context of what I do in my job. And it occurs to me that it is a whole lot easier to be the same, not different, to let the daily demands and requirements that seem hard (because we make them so in our own minds to justify ourselves) take precedence over doing the truly hard work of doing different things, of trying to improve. Which means that we've cleaned out our desks without really knowing it. 

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