Diagnosing Workaday Insanity


Somewhere along the way I became convinced that we are all crazy in one way or another. Anyone who has worked for a modern company will see that each of us, at times, comes up a few fries short of a Happy Meal (for evidence, check cartoon strip Dilbert daily). I'm not talking about diagnosable mental illnesses -- debilitating conditions like paranoia, schizophrenia, or chronic depression. I'm talking about garden-variety craziness that we see and exhibit every day in the workplace.

I think most of us can readily be classified into one of two broad categories of crazy: the neurotics and the not-my-problem-otics. (Despite these scientific-sounding names, be advised that my errant musings below are in no way, to my knowledge, supported by empirical psychological research).

NARROW VISION. Let's start with the neurotics. They have an intrinsic tendency to blame themselves. When something goes wrong at work, regardless of where the problem occurred, they are likely to feel a strong sense of responsibility -- and they will generally work hard to try to fix the problem. Neurotics personalize the failures of the organization and are likely to work extra hours, pick up additional responsibilities, and rattle the cages of those less motivated. Walk through your office some evening at 7 p.m. and reflect on the personalities of the people still at work. My guess is that most late-nighters in your organization will fit this description to a tee.

The opposite of the neurotic is the not-my-problem-otic. When something goes wrong at their company, they are able to quickly justify how the problem is someone else's, and they will cheerfully punch out at 5 p.m. and drive home with a clear conscience. The trouble with these folks is that they don't take much responsibility for anything. Instead, they narrowly define their roles in ways that exempt them from the messy, gray areas that are key to winning in business.

Think of the salesman who defines his job strictly as "bringing in the order" and who refuses to be responsible for matching what he sells to the firm's capabilities, capacity limitations, or profitability targets. Or take the manufacturing leader who so restricts the order process that he makes it impossible for his team to lose -- and in doing so makes it impossible for the company to win.

WHICH CRAZY IS BETTER? I probably sound like I prefer neurotics to not-my-problem-otics, and I do. When I look back over my management career, I realize that I have unconsciously sought to hire as many neurotics as possible. That's because it's easier to get a neurotic to back off a bit than it is to get a not-my-problem-otic to care more. In the words of one of my early, Texas-born mentors, "I'd rather say 'whoa' than 'giddy-up' any day."

With neurotics, I always have to say things like "When are you going to take some vacation time?" or "Your intensity is driving people crazy; you need to back off a bit." And if you don't watch your neurotics closely, they may drive their colleagues to drink. Heaven help you if you have two strong neurotics at key levels in the organization. They may spend so much energy trying to out-work and out-martyr each other that team spirit suffers as a result.

That said, give me a neurotic any day. I just like the way they tend to throw themselves at things so passionately. Sure, I spend a lot of time smoothing the feathers they ruffle, but I prefer that to constantly trying to build the fire of commitment under those not-my-problem-otics.

VARIETY NEEDED. Perhaps only a few of us can be cleanly categorized into one of these two categories, but in my experience most people have a tendency toward one or the other. My personal preference for neurotics aside, I must admit that both styles bring to the workplace something of value. The not-my-problem-otics bring an appreciation for boundaries and the realization that they simply cannot take responsibility for everything. The neurotics bring a no-excuses mentality to their work, one that prompts them to take responsibility for making things better regardless of where a problem falls on the organizational chart.

Of course, a company full of neurotics would probably be a disaster (like my six-year-old's soccer team, with every player crowded around the ball), but for me it's fun to think about the possibility. Who knows, maybe I could even go home at 5 p.m. once in a while.

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