Herd Mentality

by Russell, Nan S. Wednesday, July 02, 2008
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Booths featuring products and services related to employee engagement, web-based delivery, global performance, and talent management were overflowing with conference attendees as I walked the trade show at a national conference where I was speaking. Just a few years ago the magnets were initiatives like total quality management, six sigma, diversity, work-life-balance, and customer driven.

Every few years there are band wagons of "solutions" for the ills troubling companies, with contingents of experts ready to sell the latest "fix" to eager herd-minded buyers. Reinforced by trade and business magazines featuring successful company examples of this "new" thinking, they're gobbled up like chocolate chip cookies in a kindergarten. It's interesting that started-but-failed initiatives aren't highlighted, or the long-term impact of unintended consequences scrutinized for what these flavor-of-the year programs elicit.

If generational differences are the headlines now filling business magazines, then you'd better start addressing them, right? If work-balance is unbalanced and hijacking your employees' morale, it's time to hire a consultant, right? Maybe. But what if "balance" is as illusive a concept as happiness, needing to be defined and managed by the individual not some company entity? Or it's a buzz-word for deeper issues undermining effectiveness in the workplace? What then?

The solution to these and other organizational issues is not herd thinking. Don't get me wrong. I'm not one to dismiss ideas or thought leaders who shift our collective perspective. Nor am I quick to ignore technological changes that make innovative communication more productive and efficient for businesses and individuals. And I'm certainly not suggesting that well-founded and sustained initiatives are not important for businesses or industries or bottom-line results. They are.

But the tag-along herd approach of throwing the latest program or consultant or technology at a problem, or cloning the practices of "best companies" for your department or organization can do more damage than good if these same initiatives are the wrong fit, or sit dormant after launch collecting dust on a shelf in management offices, only to be replaced with the latest, hottest, next thing that ignites a "gotta have it - gotta do it - this is the answer" mentality.

Herd-following fails when the behavior accountability for what is introduced is not linked to bottom line results, or integrated into workplace practices with rampant, sustained, patient focus.

You see, the answers to complex problems that plague your business are usually not band wagon solutions. More often than not, people problems result when what leaders say and what they do are not in alignment.

If you introduce a new program as an important company initiative, but relegate it to HR or training or customer support to champion, instead of making it an accountable strategic objective, don't be surprised when it's as successful as those motivational posters hanging on bulletin boards.

If budget tightening happens when sales plummet, but you award yourself a bonus before freezing the salary of your staff, don't be surprised when discretionary efforts and innovative ideas get frozen, too. When you treat employees as one-size-fits-all interchangeable parts, don't be surprised when they treat customers that way. And when scathing emails from top leaders feel like parental tirades, don't be surprised if they're answered with sandbox antics.

You see, you can buy the latest social-networking interface for collaborative staff work, or the best learning programs for staff growth and development, or even the most innovative gadgets for staying connected, and you can even provide a stellar menu-driven employee benefit plan, but if you're missing the foundational pieces of communication, credibility, trust, and respect with your staff, you're missing the ingredients needed for any sustainable and successful initiative. Want a winning organization? Start there.

(c) 2008 Nan S. Russell. All rights reserved.