January 26, 2015

Let’s continue with the topic of ineffective managerial instruments, launched by post on the gloomy prospects of applying them. Why, would you ask, should an intelligent and reasonable person engage in an apparently ineffective and often harmful activity? The thing is that this person is simply unaware that the activity is ineffective and harmful. How come?

CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licensed photo from flickr.com by Birth Into Being

When all other fails – the brain kicks in

The brain! Despite its unquestioned role in survival of our species it is quite an expensive thing to sustain. An intensely working brain encounts for up to 25% of the organism total energy consumption. At that it constitutes less than 2.5% of the total body weight.

This disparity poses a serious threat given the dire lack of resources, which has plagued humans as a species throughout 99% time of their existence. In modern society the issue of energy deficiency has seemingly been solved. Yet even today long term high intensity brainwork can result in so-called nervous exhaustion, which is quite difficult to treat.

This is exactly why the evolution has made sure we have several in-built mechanisms to keep the energy consumed by brain within 10% - in other words to avoid thinking at all costs. These mechanisms have a bearing on our managerial decisions among other things. Two of them are particularly interesting in the context of our topic.

The Power of Inertia

When our brain finds a solution to the task it will continually revert to it, modify it slightly and stubbornly refuse to come up with any other options that would be significantly different.

Thus, in the story #2, when I realized that the current system of fines was ineffective, my thoughts lingered around the same solution. What if we increased the fine amount? What if we linked it to the salary? What percentage of the pay? What if we differentiated the fine depending on how late the person was? And so on and so forth.

This mechanism is known as mental inertia. In everyday life it is quite convenient as it saves the mental energy from being wasted on thinking though tasks solved. The ready made solution is at hand – take it and use it.

However for a leader mental inertia is an impediment. To begin with people are different and an approach that worked well with one teammate is sure to fail with another. Secondly people are subject to uncontrolled impact of the environment, so something that worked yesterday won’t work today. Thirdly the business environment of the 21 century evolves dramatically and what is a good result today will simply be not enough to succeed tomorrow.

Still mental inertia dates back millennia and it could not care less about the business environment of few recent centuries.

Stealing ideas

This far we have proceeded on the assumption that at least originally we came up with our own solution and tested if it was a viable one. However this is not always the case.

In fact the most optimal strategy to save your resources is to help yourself to what belongs to someone else. Thus we often copy products of mental efforts of other people like behavioral models, communication patterns, problem solutions, instruments, mindsets.

Who do we copy? People we identify with, people we believe to be successful, in other words leaders of our reference group at one time or another – our parents at home, teachers at school, bullies in the neighbourhood and managers at work. As they say we are the average of people who surround us.

In society this mechanism plays a number of important social functions that go beyond our topic of discussion. However on the individual level…

While we are able to critically review our own idea, in case of a copied one it bypasses our consciousness and all rational, critical, moral and ethical barriers and is perceived as a right one, reliable and recommended for use. This is how we can come to own instruments that may never really worked.

This is exactly how I borrowed the penalty box idea in story #2 from my first PM, despite the effect it had on me. If I had made any attempt of conscious analysis I would have never used this instrument.

Even when an idea is effective in principle, it still has constraints and range of application, which we overlook when we let in the ideas through the back door. The instrument wrongly applied produces a zero if not the opposite effect.

The long-term consequences of applying the idea forms the constraint that is often overlooked. For instance psychological manipulations effectively produces the desired result here and now but often poisons long-term relationships. Still there is a subset of manipulations – sometimes called ‘easy manipulations’ – that is widely used by people in society, often since childhood. That’s because we easily copy these communication patterns from our parents and teachers. Then we apply them with equal ease. And then we face the consequences.

But for a leader the problem lies elsewhere. At times the long-term consequences may be sacrificed. However the decision has to be pragmatic, made in cold blood with full awareness of the consequences and the price to be paid.

As we see our subconsiousness has plenty of mechanisms that compel us to use flawed solutions and ineffective managerial instruments. What shall we do about all of this? The answer is discussed in the third and final part of this series.

Don’t miss an interesting article — stay connected…

Get More

some materials, events and special proposals from Pragmatic Leaders are available only for subscribers…

Thank You!

Follow the instructions in email to confirm the subscription.

Back to reading