05 December 2009

Why the best people are sometimes sent away

Layoffs, layoffs, and more layoffs. 'Tis not an easy time to be employed, these days. Who can say, how long any of us will be? I heard recently of a layoff that took folks by surprise. Most layoffs do, for some reason. We like to think that we are valued, that our work counts for something, that someone notices what we've been up to. Sadly, that seems to happen less and less. But still we hang onto the belief that, well, we will be spared in the next round of downsizing.

I recently finished reading The Art of Possibility by Ben and Roz Zander. Much of the book I found a bit grating - but that had more to do with the tone, than the content. I actually found some tasty little nuggets between the covers, one of which really hit home, with regard to an orchestra member whom Mr. Zander (conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra) considered unmotivated and disaffected. Turns out, she was anything but -- she was actually deeply invested in the music they were playing; it was the score/arrangement that was the problem for her. When he switched up the pacing, she was able to pour her whole self into it.

From the book on page 39:
"The lesson I learned is that the player who looks least engaged may be the most committed member of the group. A cynic, after all, is a passionate person who does not want to be disappointed again."

Interesting... when I thought about that in terms of all the IT folks I've worked with in the past, as well as all the really good IT folks who have been inexplicably laid off, over the past few years, by organizations that desperately needed them, suddenly something clicked. Could the unfathomable shedding of some of the most talented and committed team members have anything to do with this phenomenon -- the cynicism of the disillusioned passions?

Let's break it down:

Top performers with a passion for what they do are asked to perform feats of unbelievable efficiency and productivity on a shoestring budget and about half the time they need to get it done right.

They do the job, and they do it well, but they keep being asked to do more and more with less and less.

They have to make trade-offs in their choices, and they have to sacrifice excellence for efficiency. You can have only one of the following three: high quality, quick turnaround, or decent price, not all three, and time and again they've had to sacrifice high quality for speed and price. That soul-sucking exercise ultimately cuts into their morale and passion -- the more deeply they care about their work and the quality thereof, the more quickly they grow cynical and disaffected.

Management notices that, over time, they've become increasingly marginal. They don't contribute the way they used to. They don't perform with the same vigor they once did. Their work is solid, but other than turning in work, they've long since stopped adding their hearts and souls to the life of the organization.

So, they end up on the shortlist for cuts.

And when they are cut, the organization loses some of its most passionately committed performers, who -- given proper support and actual leadership -- could bring home one slam-dunk after another, app-wise. That's bad news for the organization, because the folks who were once the most dedicated, loyal, passionate, committed individuals in the shop are no longer around to help do the job. The fire that burned brightly enough in them to carry them and their teams through the tough times, has been ushered out of the building, leaving the survivors to try to kindle the same drive, the same... vision... that once got the job done.

Problem is, there aren't nearly enough of the best people left. And there's twice the workload from before... and more threats of layoffs.

A new cycle of encroaching cynicism ensues, as the survivors -- who cannot for the life of them understand why some of the best and the brightest were disposed of -- struggle to meet their goals... making the same sorts of sacrifices that drove their colleagues away... slowly sinking into the quagmire of their own broken-hearted cynicism, until they too end up on layoff shortlists.

I'm sure this phenomenon been amply detailed in management literature, perhaps ad nauseum. I'm sure someone somewhere has highlighted this to the H.R. folks and managers of the world. But for me, that instant when I read the Ben Zander quote, a little bit more about my world became a little bit clearer.

Which made me happy... immediately prior to making me very, very sad.


e-Patient Dave said...

If you ever get a chance to see Ben Zander speak, do. Check this video of him.

And yeah, it's a Dilbert-level error to presume that when resources get crunched, reduced output of successful people is caused by the person becoming less capable!

Resources get crunched - that's part of this economy - but when leaders realize what's going on, they can think about what to do with what they've got.

Kay Stoner said...

Thanks for the link to the video.

And while resources do get crunched, and people do become disaffected, I think it's also incumbent upon everyone to take a position of leadership in their own life.

The topic is long and intricate and involved, and I've been thinking about it a great deal. More later...

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