As any successful leader will tell you, a business runs on the network of alliances, loyalties, and understandings among its people. We want to believe in our organizations, and our organizations want us to invest our discretionary effort in their causes. But when we join a cause, we naturally assume its leaders will reward us correspondingly, especially if we achieve results.
This is where we are wrong. Having listened to so many stories, I am increasingly convinced that organizations routinely break this implied social contract, compelled not by individual malice but by simple expediency. Unfortunately, the most effective short-term solutions to immediate problems often involve taking advantage of the very dedication evoked by the mission.
For example, a mid-career publishing executive who had fought to save a division found himself laying off the people who had pushed hardest to make a needed change. “My bosses challenged me to turn around the Florida operation,” he later recalled, “to get it up to corporate standards because they didn’t want to have to shut it down. It turned into a fantastic assignment, working with dedicated people who were intensely proud to be part of the company. After 18 months, we had met the company’s most ambitious targets. Then, based on our performance, corporate dramatically increased their growth projections. Of course, that meant they had to shut down the operation anyway, because only the corporate operating facility was set up for such high volume. I understood the decision, but telling the team was one of the hardest things I ever did. It was translated into Spanish as I spoke [half the team was Spanish-speaking], and for a good 90 seconds they were all smiling at me as the translation happened. They thought they were going to get a bonus, not be laid off.”
Most people I talked to accepted such situations as part of the job. But clearly those experiences took a toll. Having been through such experiences repeatedly, people found it more difficult to give themselves wholeheartedly to any new endeavor. Somehow, they had to find a way to play the game differently next time.
The Five Strategies
In the interviews I conducted, I heard about five different strategies that people had adopted — to prepare in advance to win the “devil’s bargain” and avoid disillusionment.
Playing to Win. Of the 38 people I spoke with, 18, at one point or another, had adopted a strategy focused on proving themselves. Skeptical about grandiose aspirations or altruistic ideas, especially in the workplace, they put their faith in drive, intelligence, and free markets to propel them to the top. They took on challenges just to see if they could, putting work at the center of their lives and deferring their personal dreams and ideals until they had sufficient power and wealth to command respect. Dave, a 34-year-old technology entrepreneur, was typical of this group. “It took us five years of driving — days, nights, weekends. Doing deals, promising the moon, then pushing to meet impossible deadlines without enough staff. But when we sold the company last year, we made it big,” he said. “I felt like Caesar returning to Rome after conquering the Gauls. That was my triumph.”
The playing-to-win strategy tended to satisfy people for a time, but it could also lead to deep sadness, even shock. When Dave cashed in, he left behind a partner who hadn’t benefited on the same scale. “You follow the lure of the money,” he said, “but the M&A people don’t tell you about the downside. Your partners are going to feel betrayed. I succeeded, but it ended my closest friendship. Now I have to ask myself, ‘Am I a good guy?’”