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Creating Hardworking Idiots

Creating Hardworking Idiots

The German World War II general Erich von Manstein is said to have categorized his officers into four types. The first type, he said, is lazy and stupid. His advice was to leave them alone because they don’t do any harm. The second type is hard-working and clever. He said that they make great officers because they ensure everything runs smoothly. The third group is composed of hardworking idiots. Von Manstein claims that you must immediately get rid of these, as they force everyone around them to perform pointless tasks. The fourth category are officers who are lazy and clever. These, he says, should be your generals. Discovering this information set me to wondering how General von Manstein’s categories might apply to business organizations today.

Lazy and Stupid

Most organizations have some managers within them who are lazy and stupid—at least, that has been my experience. Would you agree with the general that you can leave them alone, because they do no harm? I doubt it. Most organizations claim they try to get rid of any employee who is found to be lazy, let alone stupid as well. Maybe they try, but they don’t seem to be so successful, judging by the number who are left, some even in fairly exalted positions. Maybe one reason for this is that lazy and stupid people rarely do much active harm. The harm they do is more often based on missing opportunities and stifling the creativity of those who report to them. Bad enough, but not always easy to turn into clear grounds for dismissal—especially if the person in question is protected by someone powerful. Still, my guess is that even lazy and stupid people today realize that the best route to self-preservation is at least to appear busy and active.

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Hardworking and Clever

Von Manstein’s next group is made up of hardworking, clever people. Organizations mostly want as many of these as they can get, for obvious reasons. But you’ll notice that the general seems to confine them to the military equivalent of middle management: jobs that are aimed at making everything run smoothly. I suspect one reason is that such people do make excellent administrators. They can take orders from above and turn them into practical ways of achieving the desired results. Some are so useful in these roles that they are never allowed to rise higher. Others maybe want to progress, but lack something that—at least in von Manstein’s view—is essential to become a good general. That something, it seems, is laziness. He wants the choice of generals to be made from people who are clever, naturally, but also lazy. Why should that make them better top executives?

Lazy and Clever

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One reason might be that laziness is the principal spur to creativity. Lazy people are always looking for easier, simpler, and less arduous ways to do things. If they are also clever, the chances are that they will find them, and make them available to everyone else. Lazy people are also natural delegators, and find it very attractive to let their subordinates get on with their work without interference from above. Lazy, but bright, generals would be likely to make sure they focused on the essentials and ignored anything that might make for unnecessary work, whether for themselves or other people. In fact, it’s hard to see why you would not want your top managers to be as lazy as they are clever. It would indeed make them great strategists and leaders of people.

Hardworking Idiots

Now to the last group: the ones von Manstein said that you should get rid of immediately. That group is made up of people who are hardworking idiots, in his words. He says such people force those around them into pointless activities. I don’t know about you, but I suffered from several bosses I would unhesitatingly put into precisely that category. They were extremely hardworking—and demanded the same from their subordinates—but what they set others to work on (and what they spent their own time in doing) was mostly worthless. Maybe they were actually lazy and stupid people trying hard to seem busy, but too stupid to choose the right things to be busy about. It certainly felt like busyness for its own sake, and it was hateful. Or were they naturally hardworking idiots? Some probably were, but it’s my opinion that most such people are clever enough. It is the organization that makes them function like morons.

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Today’s fast-paced, macho style of organizational culture creates, and then fosters, the hardworking idiot. Indeed, I think it takes a great many sound, useful, hardworking, and clever people and turns them into idiots by denying them the time or the opportunity to think or use their brains. If you don’t look busy all the time, you’re virtually asking for a pink slip, never mind what it is that you are doing—or whether it is actually of any use to the organization or its customers. It’s all so rushed and frenetic. If all that matters is “meeting the numbers” and getting things done (whatever those things are), managers will be forced into working hard at projects that they know make no sense.

The dumbing down of organizations isn’t caused by poor educational standards or faulty recruitment. It’s due mostly to the crazy pace that is set, and the obsessive focus on the most obvious, rigidly short-term objectives. The result is a sharp increase in hardworking idiots: people who are coerced into long hours and constant busyness, while being systematically forced to act like idiots by the culture around them. Don’t ask questions. Don’t cause problems by thinking, or waste time on coming up with new ideas. Don’t think about the future, or try to anticipate problems before they arise. Just keep at it, do exactly what is expected of you, and always get the most done in the least amount of time and at the lowest cost. If von Manstein is correct, the result will be that more and more employees will be used to perform essentially pointless tasks. Isn’t that exactly what we see?

I think that even a fairly cursory look around most organizations today would confirm the accuracy of this observation. Consider all the time wasted in unnecessary meetings. The obsessive emphasis on staying in touch, regardless of need. The torrents of e-mails, most of which are simply copies of documents of no direct relevance to the people to whom they are sent. The constant collecting of data for no clear reason. Management by numbers and motivation by numerically-based performance measures. Trust replaced by obsessive control and leadership by forced ranking of subordinates against vague criteria determined by committees with no idea of the specific circumstances.

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You do not need ethical insight or human understanding to operate a machine, and machines are how many of today’s leaders see their organization: machines for making quick profits, not civilized communities of people working together to a common end. We can only hope some organizations at least see the error of their ways before the hardworking idiot becomes the commonest creature in the hierarchy. We are well on the way to that point, which is probably why so many people cherish dreams of getting out of the corporate rat race. It’s no fun to be forced to deny your own intelligence on a daily basis. We can still reverse the trend, but only by dropping the current out-dated dogmas, dangerous half truths, and total nonsense that disfigure management thinking. Let’s do it before it is too late.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his posts most days 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.

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Last Updated on February 15, 2019

How Setting Personal Goals Makes You a Greater Achiever

How Setting Personal Goals Makes You a Greater Achiever

Achieving personal goals deserves a huge amount of celebration but setting these goals in the first place is a massive achievement in itself.

While the big goals serve as a destination, the journey is probably the most important part of the process. It reflects your progress, your growth and your ability take control and steer your life towards positive change.

Whatever your goal is, whether it’s losing 20lbs or learning a new language, there will always be a set amount of steps you need to take in order to achieve it. Once you’ve set your sights on your goal, the next stage is to take an assertive path towards how you will get there.

The aim of this article is to guide you through how to take action towards your personal goals in a way that will help you achieve them strategically and successfully.

1. Get very specific

When it comes to setting your personal goals, honing in on its specifics is crucial for success.

It’s common to have a broad idea of where you want to go or what you want to achieve, but this can sabotage your efforts in the long run.

Get clear on what you want your goal to look like so you can create solid steps towards it.

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Say you have a vision on retiring early. This goal feels good to you and you can envision filling your days of work-free life with worldly adventures and time with loved ones.

If retiring early is a serious personal goal for you, you will need to insert a timeframe. So your goal has changed from “I’d like to someday retire early and travel the world” to “I’m going to retire by 50 and travel the world”.

It may not seem significant, but creating this tweak in your goal by specifying a definite time, will help create and structure the steps needed to achieve it in a more purposeful way.

2. Identify the preparation you need to achieve your goal

It’s easy to set a goal and excitedly, yet aimlessly move towards it. But this way of going about achieving goals will only leave you eventually lost and feeling like you’ll never achieve it.

You have to really think about what you need to do in order to make this goal possible. It’s all very well wanting it to happen, but if you just sit back and hope you’ll get there one day will result in disappointment.

Self-managing your goals is a crucial step in the process. This involves taking control of your goal, owning it and making sure you are in a great position to make it happen.

In the early retirement example, this would mean you will need to think about your financial situation.

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What will your finances ideally need to look like if you were to retire early and travel the world? How much money will you need to put into your retirement fund to retire at 50? How much extra savings will you need to support your travels? You could also start researching the places you’d like to travel to and how long you’d like to travel for.

Outlining these factors will, not only make your goal seem more tangible, but also create a mind shift to one of forward motion. Seeing the steps more clearly will help you make a more useful plan of action and seeing your goal as a reality.

3. Breakdown each step into more manageable goals

The secret to achieving your goals is to create smaller goals within each step and take action. Remember, you’re looking for progress, no matter how small it may seem.

These small steps build up and get you to the top. By doing this, you also make the whole process much less daunting and overwhelming.

In the early retirement scenario, there are several smaller goals you could implement here:

  • Decide to make an appointment with a financial advisor asking what financial options would be available to you if you were to go into early retirement and travel. Get advice on how much you would need to top up your funds in order to reach your goal on time.
  • Set up and start to make payments into the retirement fund.
  • Research savings accounts with good rates of interest and commit to depositing a certain amount each month.
  • Make sure you meet with your financial advisor each year to make sure your retirement plan remains the best one for you. Research new savings accounts to move your money into to reap the best returns in interest rates.
  • Start investing in travel books, building up a library that covers where you want to go.
  • Think about starting a language course that will help you get the most out of your travel experience.

4. Get started on the journey

Creating a goal planner in which you can start writing down your next steps is where the magic happens. This is where the real momentum towards your dream starts!

Create a schedule and start by writing in when you will start the first task and on which day. Commit to completing this small task and feel the joy of crossing it off your list. Do this with every little step until your first mini goal has been reached.

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In the early retirement example, schedule in a meeting with a financial advisor. That’s it. Easy.

As I mentioned before, it may seem such a small step but it’s the momentum that’s the most important element here. Once you cross this off, you can focus on the meeting itself, then once that’s ticked off, you are in a position of starting a profitable retirement fund…and so the momentum continues. You are now on your journey to achieving your dream goal.

5. Create an annual review

Taking a step back and reviewing your progress is essential for keeping yourself on the right track. Sometimes you can be moving full steam ahead towards your goal but miss seeing the opportunities to improve a process or even re-evaluate your feelings towards the goal.

Nominate a day each year to sit down and take a look at your progress. Celebrate your achievements and how far you’ve come. But also think about changing any of the remaining steps in light of new circumstances.

Has anything changed? Perhaps you got a promotion at work and you feel you can add more to your monthly savings.

Do you still feel the same about your goal? It’s normal for our desires to change over time and our personal goals need to reflect this.

Perhaps you’d like to take someone new with you on your travels and you need to take this into account regarding timelines. Are there any new steps you want to add as a result?

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Remember, reflection is a useful tool in realigning your goal to any changes and it’s important to keep on the right trajectory towards it.

Strive to become the best goal-setter you can be

Having personal goals gives you purpose and the feeling of becoming a better version of yourself.

But it’s the smaller steps within these big goals that the growth and achievement really lies:

  • Whatever your goal is, make sure you get specific on when you want to achieve it. This helps you focus on the necessary steps much more efficiently.
  • Research the actionable steps required to get to the end result and…
  • Break these down into smaller, manageable goals.
  • Create a daily or weekly schedule for these smaller goals and start the positive momentum.
  • Reflect each year on your goal journey and purpose, readjusting steps according to changes in circumstance or desire.

Keep going and always have the end goal in sight. Remember the ‘why’ behind your goal throughout to keep you motivated and positive.

More Resources About Setting & Achieving Goals

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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