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.

During financial 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 Lost?: 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.

During recessions, 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?

Reclaim Revenue 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:

  • A dramatic theme to beat an enemy, achieve an ideal or fulfill a purpose

  • A difficult 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 operas

  • A short statement, which spawns stories and legends that permeate an organization’s culture

Today’s companies 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:

  • Wal-Mart: Give ordinary folks the chance to buy the same things as rich people.

  • Mary Kay: Provide unlimited opportunity to women.

  • Nike: To 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 does.)

  • HP: To make technical contributions for the advancement and welfare of humanity.

  • Komatsu: Encircle Caterpillar.

  • Coke: Put Coke within arm’s reach.

  • Harley-Davison: Fulfill dreams through the experience of motorcycling.

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:

1)   Industry 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.

Grow revenue 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.

Read other articles and learn more about Don Schmincke.

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