We live in world full of pressures to conform: to believe what others tell us is true, to toe the line, to accept the values of those in positions of power, and to follow conventional, approved paths. That’s the way to get on in life and business, we are told. You need to fit in, play the game, and avoid rocking any boats.
Fitting in and following generally accepted views on most matters may produce a quiet life—you will rarely upset anyone that way—but it won’t give you a life that includes much real progress or any fresh ideas. Heresy is progress. Nearly every advance in human thought is loudly denounced as a heresy at the start—only later does it, in turn, become the new orthodoxy. And if that is true of politics, religion, and matters of social justice—as I believe it is—it is doubly true of the world of work. As Kathy Sierra wrote this week in her article Knocking the exuberance out of employees, corporations claim they want creative, smart, passionate, and independent people; but those that they typically favor and promote (obviously because they find them more acceptable) are usually people who are obedient, cautious, methodical, and risk-averse.
This has all been much on my mind, and so my articles this week have looked at three specific aspects of organizational heresy. In The Perils of Avoiding Risk, I noted that mitigating—or, better still, completely avoiding—risk of any kind has reached number one in most executives’ list of desirable outcomes. The result is predictable. More and more decisions are restricted to people at senior levels, so that middle managers—the group most likely to include truly innovative and creative thinkers—are shut out of important decisions. It’s revealing that one person who commented on this post explained how, in his organization, a program to move decisions closer to the customer merely resulted in top executives taking over formerly middle management roles. It seems that it was inconceivable to allow middle or junior ranks to use their judgment and forego executive oversight.
Earlier in the week, I put forward a heresy of my own, suggesting that today’s cult of “leadership by numbers” is both foolish and harmful. As I wrote:
The temptation to reduce the functioning of a massive corporation to one to two headline figures is too much of an attraction for some journalists to resist, but that doesn’t make it right or sensible. Such information is more likely to represent media spin than any genuine understanding of what is happening in the business. Worse, it concentrates attention on spurious, short-term goals at the expense of the long-term health and viability of the business. It doesn’t even question whether the “achievements” so avidly reported are sensible uses of corporate time, attention, or money. And all that is assuming that the figures being used are (a) a rational choice, (b) correctly calculated, and (c) understood properly by the people in charge.
Why simplify the messy, complex, demanding, and fascinating process of running a successful business to meeting a few simple, numerical goals—as if those figures accurately represented the business as a whole? In reality, such “indicators” and “key ratios” are no more than numbers dreamed up by accountants and financial markets, often for some entirely different purpose. The figures are not the business. They are, at best, inaccurate and blurred pictures of the business as it was at one fixed time, and given a number of dubious assumptions.
Finally, I returned to the whole question of what makes for a successful life, at work and elsewhere. In Doing Well . . . or Living Well?, I question a basic tenet of much of today’s business thinking: that a good life means earning a great deal of money. I believe that what we are facing today is a direct conflict between what it takes to be seen as “doing well,” (in an economic sense) and the kind of lifestyle that constitutes “living well” (in the wider sense of enjoying a good life). Many professionals and executives earn large amounts of money and have little time to enjoy any of it. Because I suggested that Western, capitalist, industrialized society would likely collapse if a majority of people began to reject economic well-being and advancement as the sole basis for a good life, I was soundly taken to task for giving in to conventional thinking myself: a case of the heretic being accused of conformity! Well, maybe that was right, but the point remains that much of today’s economic prosperity is based on persuading a majority of people to consume what corporations want to produce. That takes money, and lots of it, so the result is a hectic lifestyle composed of equal parts of getting and spending—with much too little time left over for rest, relaxation, quiet learning, having fun, enjoying sex, spending time in the open air, or engaging in thoughtful reflection.
What I see happening is a growing imbalance in our lives, because “doing well” (in the economic and financial sense) is pursued to the detriment of “living well” (in the sense of enjoying all those other aspects of life). That imbalance is the source of most of the stress, frustration, and dissatisfaction that currently plagues us. Conventional thinking won’t show the way to find a new balance. Such progress as we can make will only come from heresy on a grand scale. It is time to make a start.
Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life.
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