At All Costs is Too Costly

By Andrew Grant

“Greed is good” was the motto of the nineties, according to the predictions of the insightful eighties movie Wall Street, but it is clear the same philosophy still survives – albeit in different guises. Although through the last decade it was considered standard practice to embody the notion of greed and avoid talking about ethics and trust, the latest series of business scandals has forced many people to re-look at the importance of business ethics and core values.

Should we be surprised at the scale and audacity of the current corporate scandals? Society has espoused the philosophy that it’s important to “do whatever it takes to produce the numbers” and that’s exactly what individuals have done. A recent article from the Economist has, quite rightly, pointed out that, “When undue attention is focused on a single figure (bottom line profit), undue effort is devoted to manipulating it.” Commenting on the current economic climate, George W Bush said that, “Unethical behaviour and conduct that began in the boom of the 1990s is being uncovered. Workers have lost their jobs and the trust of the American people has been betrayed.” 

Although the unwritten rule for many companies has been to “do whatever it takes to get ahead”, many of the individuals we come into contact with in our work actually rate trust and honesty as the most important attributes in successful team and organisational development.

THE COMPETITIVE SPIRIT

We have some great photos of professional adult men cuddling stuffed toy monkeys. On one of our team building programs, corporate groups are asked to rescue and provide for this unique “endangered” animal. We travel on buses to jungle areas, where teams must negotiate difficult territory to gather supplies for their animal and follow the instructions carefully to ensure its survival.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the activity inevitably gets very competitive – although no direct instructions are given to compete against others. It’s quite humorous to observe from an objective perspective the way these people behave when the suits are taken off and the challenge is on. It’s interesting to see to what extent these people will go to in order to reach the given goal. They’ll battle each other in huge football scrums and shred the other teams’ animals to pieces, lying and cheating as much as is necessary to “win”.

One particular time when we ran the program, the heat was on before the group even departed from the hotel. We were working with the top sales performers in the company, and they were all hyped up and ready to go. No sooner had the group left the briefing room, than an individual from Team A stole Team B’s monkey and threw it in the rubbish bin. Team B, however, only discovered their significant loss when the bus arrived at the given destination. Team B was mortified. The whole day’s activity was now useless.

What the individual in Team A hadn’t taken into account was the fact that the CEO of the company was on Team B. And the CEO was furious! At the end of the program she let it be known that if she found the individual responsible for committing such a heinous crime, they would be sacked from the company!

A day or so after the program, a very anxious individual approached us to make a confession. “Promise you won’t tell?” he pleaded – “… I stole the monkey.” He explained to us his confusion about the whole episode, explaining that as the top sales performers, this group had been told they had to give everything to win contracts, that they had to do all it would take to get ahead. He had felt that his competitive edge would be rewarded, and was taken by surprise when he was instead threatened with dismissal.

We assured him that we had already spoken to the CEO, and had explained that these activities were designed to provide the opportunity to deal with issues that arise in the workplace in a more protected environment. The exercise had revealed the flaws with a competitive focus, and had allowed the group to consider what standard was ethically acceptable for their company.

The individual kept his job, but he had learnt his lesson the hard way.

BEATING COMPETITION

Each time you enter a group you should be aware of where your competitive focus is, and where it should be. When you talk about “doing whatever it takes to win” or “the name of the game is climbing the corporate ladder” - you have chosen a competitive focus. Like a bad ecology, these ideas can pollute the organisational climate and become self-reinforcing.

By focusing on team development rather than competition you will, paradoxically, end up having the competitive edge. In “Built to Last”, Collins and Porras look at the implications for organisations: “Visionary companies focus primarily on beating themselves. Success and beating competitors comes to the visionary companies not so much as the end goal, but as a result of relentlessly asking the question: “How can we improve ourselves to do better tomorrow than we did today?”

They go on to explain that the most successful companies over the last 100 years have known at the very core what they stand for and why they exist. They consciously concentrate on building the company not developing great products. The company is not a vehicle for products, but the products are seen as a vehicle for the company. These companies exist as a great companies that produce ‘xyz’ and not the other way round.

The most impressive teams in companies we have worked have a strong value system based on a personal focus.

Just as individuals can be emotionally hijacked by stress, teams can be hijacked by an unchecked and unmonitored lust for success at all cost. Core values and excellence can end up taking a back seat while competition drives the group along the road at frightening and dangerous speeds.

Ethics give our society a form of order and stability. Those who choose not to behave ethically can end up being a great burden on the rest of the population. The current cost of competing “at all costs” has been 257 public companies with $258 billion in assets declared bankruptcy in 2001, AND the betrayal of trust. We aim to ensure that the companies we work with recognise the importance of focusing on a higher principle than “Doing whatever it takes  … “

© Andrew Grant

 

T-Thoughts articles may be reproduced with written permission and must also be acknowledged with a web link back to the Tirian pages.

Leave a Reply