The unicorn is perhaps unique among myths in that the creature doesn’t appear in the mythology of any culture. The ancient Greeks, for all of their centaurs, hydras and medusas, never had any stories of unicorns, they simply thought that some existed somewhere. Of course, nobody had ever seen one, but they believed others had. It’s the same with a business myth.
Beliefs are amazing things. We don’t need any evidence or rational basis to believe something to be true. In fact, research has shown that, when confronted with scientific evidence which conflicts with preexisting views, people tend to question the objectivity of the research rather than revisit their beliefs. Also, as Sam Arbesman has explained, our notions of the facts themselves change over time.
George Soros and others have noted that information has a reflexive quality. We can’t possibly verify every proposition, so we tend to take cues from those around us, especially when they are reinforced by authority figures, like consultants and media personalities. Over time, the zeitgeist diverges further from reality and myths evolve into established doctrine.
Business Myth #1: We Live In A VUCA Business Environment
Today it seems that every business pundit is talking about how we operate in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. It’s not hard to see the attraction. Conjuring almost apocalyptic images of continuous industrial disruption creates demand for consulting and advisory services. It’s easier to sell aspirin than vitamins.
The data, however, tell a different story. In fact, a report from the OECD found that markets, especially in the United States, have become more concentrated and less competitive, with less churn among industry leaders. The number of young firms have decreased markedly as well, falling from roughly half of the total number of companies in 1982 to one third in 2013.
Today, in part because of lax antitrust enforcement over the past few decades, businesses have become less disruptive, less competitive and less dynamic, while our economy has become less innovative and less productive. The fact that the reality is in such stark contrast to the rhetoric, is more than worrying, it should be a flashing red light.
The truth is that we don’t really disrupt industries anymore. We disrupt people. Economic data shows that for most Americans, real wages have hardly budged since 1964. Income and wealth inequality remain at historic highs. Anxiety and depression, already at epidemic levels, worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now we are in the midst of the great resignation and people have been leaving their jobs in droves. Should anyone be surprised? We’ve been working longer hours, constantly tethered to the office even as we work remotely, under increasing levels of stress. Yes, things change. They always have and always will. We need to adapt, but all of the VUCA talk is killing us.
Business Myth #2: Empathy Is Absolution
Another favorite buzzword today is empathy. It is often paired with compassion in the context of creating a more beneficial workplace. That is, of course, a reasonable and worthy objective. As noted above, there’s far too much talk about disruption and uncertainty and not nearly enough about stability and well-being.
Still, the one-dimensional use of empathy is misleading. When seen only through the lens of making others more comfortable, it seems like a “nice to have,” rather than a valuable competency and an important source of competitive advantage. It’s much easier to see the advantage of imposing your will, rather than internalizing the perspectives of others.
One thing I learned living overseas for 15 years is that it is incredibly important to understand how people around you think, especially if you don’t agree with them and, as is sometimes the case, find their point of view morally reprehensible. In fact, learning more about how others think can make you a more effective leader, negotiator and manager.
Empathy is not absolution. You can internalize the ideas of others and still vehemently disagree. There is a reason that Special Forces are trained to understand the cultures in which they will operate and it isn’t because it makes them nicer people. It’s because it makes them more lethal operators.
Learning that not everyone thinks alike is one of life’s most valuable lessons. Yes, coercion is often a viable strategy in the short-term. But to build something that lasts, it’s much better if people do things for their own reasons, even if those reasons are different than yours. To achieve that, you have to understand their motivations.
Business Myth #3: Diversity Equity And Inclusion Is About Enforcing Rules
In recent years corporate America has pushed to implement policies for diversity, equity and inclusion. The Society for Human Resource Management even offers a diversity toolkit on its website firms can adopt, complete with guidelines, best practices and even form letters.
Many organizations have incorporated diversity awareness training for employees to learn about things like unconscious bias, microaggressions and cultural awareness. There are often strict codes of conduct with serious repercussions for violations. Those who step out of line can be terminated and see their careers derailed.
Unfortunately, these efforts can backfire, especially if diversity efforts rely to heavily on a disciplinary regime. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out long ago, strict rules-based approaches are problematic because they inevitably lead to logical contradictions. What starts out as a well-meaning effort can quickly become a capricious workplace dominated by fear.
Cultural competency is much better understood as a set of skills than a set of rules. While the prospect of getting fired for saying the wrong thing can be chilling, who wouldn’t want to be a more effective communicator, able to collaborate more effectively with colleagues who have different viewpoints, skills and perspectives?
To bring about real transformation, you need to attract. You can’t bully or overpower. Promoting inclusion should be about understanding, not intimidation.
Business Myth #4: People Are Best Motivated Through Carrots And Sticks
One of the things we’ve noticed when we advise organizations on transformation initiatives is that executives tend to default towards incentive structures. They quickly conjure up a Rube Goldberg-like system of bonuses and penalties designed to incentivize people to exhibit the desired behaviors. This is almost always a mistake.
If you feel the need to bribe and bully people to get what you want, you are signaling from the outset that there is something undesirable about what you’re asking for. In fact, we’ve known for decades that financial incentives often prove to be problematic.
Instead of trying to get people to do what you want, you’re much better off identifying people who want what you want and empowering them to succeed. As they prosper, they can bring others in who can attract others still. That’s how you build a movement that people feel a sense of ownership of, rather than mandate that they feel subjugated by.
The trick is that you always want to start with a majority, even if it’s three people in a room of five. The biggest influence on what we do and think is what the people around us do and think. That’s why it’s always easy to expand a majority out, but as soon as you are in the minority, you will feel immediate pushback.
We need to stop trying to engineer behavior, as if humans are assemblages of buttons and levers that we push and pull to get the results we want. Effective leaders are more like gardeners, nurturing, growing and shaping the ecosystems in which they operate, uniting others with a sense of shared identity and shared purpose.
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