By Frank J. Rich
In her signature song by the same name, Barbra Streisand, the extraordinary vocalist and actress, uncovered an essential condition in us — our child-like nature.
People who need people,
Are the luckiest people in the world.
We’re children, needing other children,
And yet letting a grown-up pride,
Hide all the need inside,
Acting more like children than children.
The opening line in the celebrated book by Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” is testimony to the dysfunction common to man, and a poignant view of the fundamental workings of the human condition. Tolstoy, in this engaging novel, positions the crises of family life with his desire to find the meaning in life and social justice.
People, as we have all discovered, are the single most important and influential “others” in our lives. Yet, though we are social beings by nature, living with each other in harmony may be the most difficult thing we humans accomplish. Historians, international business persons, teachers, politicians, poets and novelists alike, and even our pets, know all too well the difficulty in accomplishing a “single organizing idea” among a group of people. Frankly, not even the almighty God — for all that people of faith believe He has done — has, yet to join the world in peaceful coexistence. People, it would appear, are loath to be, well, “people.”
A defining theme in the book, Anna Karenina, is the idea that predestination is an incontrovertible fact. It means to suggest, as the philosopher and theologian John Calvin offered, that God (in His omniscience) both knows and pre-ordains all that will happen to us here on Earth. The idea that we have anything to do with the ultimate outcome of things is antipodal to this view, and divides the Church in a theological rift between predestination and free will, itself a fundamental tenet of world faiths and behavioral science. Calvin was, perhaps driven to this “legalistic” view by his formal training as a lawyer. Tolstoy, on the other hand, in proposing the same view, found it impossible to reconcile it by his actual experience with people; thus, he proposed that while “predestination” was a known fact, one could only attain the hope in harmony with others by imagining “free will.”
Why the psychology lesson under the guise of Return On Investment (ROI)? Ms. Streisand, for all of her artistic prowess, is legend for her absolute requirement that she control all aspects of her work and its results. And while we might agree that the result justifies her means, it is by her own admission that deep insecurities are what had driven her to perfectionism. Each of the individuals above, it seems, has formed a method in which to make decisions, that which is at the root of our behavior as humans. In fact, according to some: “We all do exactly what we decide to do; we are the sum of our decisions.” Decision making, then, may determine who and what we are more than anything we do. Decisions are sometimes quick, and others may take years. Yet, for the influence they prove to be in our lives, the process remains mysterious and wizardry or art.
Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: A Survey of Theory and Research, lists over 5,000 studies and monographs on executive decision making. But when asked to reveal the common thread that qualifies an effective leader, its editor was unable to do so. The confusion over the practice is enlightened by the comment of former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who divined: Once — many, many years ago — I thought I made a wrong decision. Of course, it turned out that I had been right all along. But, I was wrong to have thought I was wrong.
The process of business can seem chaotic at times. Indeed, some have concluded that accepting the condition may be the only hope of success within it; adding that control over the chaos is the only hope in successfully managing it. As former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski revealed: “… much of what happens is the product of chaotic conditions and a great deal of personal struggle and ambiguity.” Virtually all of our problems, then, may trace to poor decisions — those made by a process that is poorly understood.
Clearly, managers spend more time making “people decisions” than on anything they do. Most would agree that it is time well spent since people are the single most valuable asset of organizations. They are, however, unique in their ways, quirky, unpredictable, and possessed of more power and grace than most organizations (even they themselves) can use to productive ends. How then do we unlock the power of people to grow our organizations to the level of our aspirations for them, especially when studies show that selection of the right people is, at best, a 30 percent proposition? This may be good for a baseball player, but is the single largest and most uncontrollable cost to growth organizations.
Organizations whose people are productively engaged, and see growth and opportunity in their work, are usually the leaders in their market segment. Somehow, they have found the secret to tapping the energy and productive juices of their people; they have learned to understand them and how they turn to productive ends. Sometimes understanding people is more than an organization is capable of doing in the normal course of business. Few have the talent and internal organization to grow capable people into a majority of its workforce. More expedient and simpler is to transition those that reveal themselves as “holes in the boat.” This too, may seem costly, but increasingly, organizations opt for it as a cost effective methodology. Many of us are aware of General Electric’s practice of vetting the bottom 10 percent of their workforce annually, in favor of higher producers.
In his telling of the success of CrossCheck, Inc, the third largest transactions-guarantee company in the U.S., Tim LaBadie, founder and chairman, confronts the conventional wisdom. Like most entrepreneurs, Mr. LaBadie claims to be different. So, when he started his company he said he wanted to create a home for “strange” people like himself; “people who won’t accept mediocrity, who won’t take no for an answer, who love pushing themselves to the limit, who thrive on change, and who will ‘do windows.’” It is, he continues, “… not a place for everyone. The survival rate is low, the casualty rate is high, and we love it.”
Mr. LaBadie is saying, “ … that there are not many places that CrossCheck people could thrive (tolerate).” Such places were likely to stifle the imaginations and productivity of their people and stunt their growth and enthusiasm for personal achievement. Apparently, it worked for CrossCheck, though most organizations could only have conversations about achieving such a workplace. People, it would appear to some, are worth the trouble.