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 / Winter 2011 / Issue 65(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Thought Leader Interview: Meg Wheatley

What makes one salesperson more successful than another? It’s not the reward and motivation system. It has much more to do with complex factors, like the relationships each person has, the ways they listen, their ability to be self-motivated. Instead of paying attention to these factors, companies are simplifying the criteria and acting as if anybody can do any job, that people are easily replaceable.

If you look at job satisfaction surveys, or you listen to people talk, you realize how this business climate has affected most organizations. Management has gone backward from the 1980s and ’90s, when people routinely talked about workforce engagement and intrinsic motivators. Instead, people are demoralized, disaffected, disillusioned. They’re afraid to talk openly about how they feel, because they want to hold on to their jobs. There’s a lot less freedom to walk out in this economy.

S+B: Where does the fear and anxiety come from? Does it have to do with uncertainty, fear of failure, losing jobs?
It’s all of that. People are anxious because these times warrant anxiety. They feel pushed aside and powerless. And then there’s a more personal fear, not as easy to name. Leaders are afraid that they don’t know how to solve the problems they face. The old models of command and control — budgeting, strategy setting, forecasting, incentives, evaluations — are not effective in a changing, volatile environment. Nothing is working as it should. A friend of mine quoted a highly placed oil executive, who whispered to her after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill: “None of us can figure out how this happened.” And I often hear descriptions of complex problems and crises described as, “We’re in new territory here. We’ve never been here before.”

Around the time I began writing Perseverance, I read a book by Laurence Gonzales called Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why: True Stories of Miraculous Endurance and Sudden Death [W.W. Norton, 2003]. Gonzalez says that when people are truly lost in the wilderness, they go through predictable stages. First, they deny they’re lost; they keep doing what they’ve always done but with a greater sense of urgency. Then, when they begin to realize that they’re lost, they search frantically for any shred of evidence that would indicate that they’re not. Next they deteriorate, both physically and mentally. Their frantic search for the familiar, and their inability to recognize that their current maps aren’t working, leads to the ultimate moment when they realize they are close to death. If they don’t acknowledge that they’re lost and that they need new information to construct an accurate read on their situation, they will die.

When I read this, I thought, “That’s exactly what I see in organizations (and in our political leaders).” Too many leaders fail to realize that the old ways, their mental maps, aren’t giving them the information they need. But instead of acknowledging that, they push on more frantically, desperate to have the old ways work. When human beings work from fear and panic, we lose nearly all of our best reasoning capacities. We can’t see patterns, think about the future, or make moral judgments.

This leads to a terrible cycle, a death spiral. People in fear look for someone to blame; so leaders blame their staff, and staff blame their leaders. A climate of blame leads to self-protective behaviors. People take fewer risks; creativity and participation disappear. New rules and regulations appear, with unintended but predictable consequences: more staff disengagement, more wasted time, more chaos. People spend all their time trying to cope or writing reports to confirm that they aren’t to blame. When I’m speaking with a group and comment about the number of reports people have to write today, or the number of measures they have to track, the audience members roll their eyes and groan.

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