Orbiting The Giant Hairball

Orbiting the Giant Hairball

My friend, Amanda, loaned me a book called “Orbiting the Giant Hairball” by Gordon MacKenzie.  I read it today and I have to say that I can identify very closely with MacKenzie’s travels through the policies, processes and bureaucracy that make up corporate culture.  What’s amazing is that your organization need not be a Fortune 500 to become a giant hairball and learning how to manage the intricacies of your role is important no matter where you work. I recommend this book to any employee anywhere.

One piece caught my eye and it’s really the one section that made me think about how corporate culture really needs to be managed, because the default just does not work.  This is the idea that if you work incredibly hard, you get results; you get ahead; you get recognized.  It’s actually a serious detriment to recognize and revere the hard worker for a couple of reasons.

If you have started a company, or even if you haven’t, you can probably think about those early days where the idea for the organization is coming to fruition:  “Let’s build an organization where people work really hard.  Let’s reward people for staying late and putting in those extra hours.”  I hope that doesn’t sound familiar to anyone.  You can’t reward people for working hard or working long hours – it doesn’t make sense.  If you’ve got a really slow employee who takes twice the average time to perform a task, are you planning to reward that?  No.  So it’s important to recognize how an organization will define “hard work.”

So let’s say you’ve defined “hard work” as punching out the most orders with the given company-sanctioned procedures and your company is the type where people “get out of it what they put in” in terms of general performance.  So someone works long hours and performs well.  And there’s a celebration for it.  “Look at Johnson! She worked so hard all year and hit her target.”  What message does that send?  Hard work, and hard work alone, wins the prize.  This does two things in my mind.

The first was mentioned in MacKenzie’s book – that tells everyone that if you’re not working as hard as ‘Johnson,’ then you’re not doing it right.  It tells managers that Johnson has set the standard for how hard people need to work in the company.  And the culture, if it’s results driven, will recognize that as the standard.  It’s a bit of false advertising that will probably lead to burnout, turnover and a general sense of failure or missed potential for people who don’t hit that mark.

My second concern is that it hinders innovation.  If the focus is on “working hard” and not achieving results within certain guidelines, say corporate values or whatever is up on the wall, people are not encouraged to do things differently or explore other options.  The goal will be to work as hard as Johnson to get the same result – some bonus or other recognition.

I’m definitely not advocating that you avoid hard work, but I’m thinking that if it’s a primary driver for recognition or considered the prime factor in success, it’s worth taking a closer look at what kinds of behaviours are being driven and whether they’re what you’re really looking for in employees.