We continue the exploration we began last time, when we considered why some groups persist with a plan that's clearly falling short of initial expectations. Last week's post explored the case in which there is no "Plan B." That discussion left open the question of why people are reluctant to adopt a Plan B when Plan B is well developed, and Plan A is clearly failing. That's the question for this time. Here are three scenarios that apply to that situation. Clearly there are many more.
- Workplace perfectionism
- Outside the organizational setting, the term perfectionism refers to excessive concern with achieving an unattainable goal, combined with unremittingly critical self-evaluation for failing to attain that unattainable goal. Certainly this pattern is observable in the workplace. But a variety of perfectionism that causes even more trouble in the workplace is probably a bit more common — call it workplace perfectionism.
- One factor that distinguishes workplace perfectionism is the attainability of the goal. Workplace perfectionists usually strive toward attainable goals, while personal perfectionists usually strive toward unattainable goals. A second distinguishing factor is how success is determined. In personal perfectionism, the perfectionist determines success, and the determination is almost certainly failure. In workplace perfectionism, persons other than the perfectionist — supervisors or rivals — usually determine whether the effort was a success. Since the goal of the workplace perfectionist is often attainable, success is not uncommon.
- Nevertheless, workplace perfectionism can be damaging to the enterprise, because the benefit of having achieved the goal doesn't justify the cost. For example, the goal achieved might have been more costly than another goal that would have served enterprise needs just as well, or even better. But the workplace perfectionist can have a personal agenda that makes the effort seem worthwhile to the perfectionist. For example, in clinging to Plan A, the perfectionist might be trying to avoid the embarrassing or career-damaging consequences of having Plan A recognized as a failure. If that is the perfectionist's agenda, he or she might be exhibiting a behavior that Swider, et al., call "failure-avoiding perfectionism" in the workplace context [Swider 2018].
- For a different take on workplace perfectionism, see "The Weaver's Pathway," Point Lookout for May 7, 2003.
- Personal Plan Bs
- Some advocates of persisting with a failing Plan A have made another kind of rational calculation based on self-interest. They have personal Plan Bs. An example of a personal Plan B is securing employment elsewhere in the enterprise, or in other organizations. Let me call people with personal Plan Bs PPBs.
- Workplace perfectionists usually strive
toward attainable goals, while
personal perfectionists usually
strive toward unattainable goalsIf Plan A ultimately succeeds, then everyone, including the PPBs, will enjoy a successful outcome. If Plan A fails, the PPBs will have what they regard as acceptable outcomes based on their personal Plan Bs. Others might not be so fortunate, but the PPBs are willing to accept that others might suffer as the result of Plan A's failure.
- Lose-lose decisions
- Some advocates of persisting with a failing Plan A believe that Plan A is failing, but fear the consequences of acknowledging the failure. They're trying to comply with what they see as the approved organizational position vis-à-vis Plan A. Some might even be willing to (privately) declare Plan A a failure already. But they sense that declaring Plan A to be a failure would have very serious negative consequences for themselves personally. Despite their private views, these individuals are willing to comply with the organizationally acceptable position that Plan A is still the current plan. Let me call one of these people Charles ("C" for Compliant).
- Charles is concerned about someone whom he regards as having considerable power over him (call her Pam for Powerful). Charles believes, with evidence, that Pam is dedicated to the success of Plan A. Charles also believes, again with evidence, that expressing his true beliefs about Plan A would displease Pam. He believes that if he spoke his mind, Pam would take steps to discredit Charles or otherwise harm his career. He believes that Pam would not be reluctant to kill the messenger.
- And so, Charles confronts a lose-lose decision. He can keep mum about Plan A, and ride with its failure, or he can express his view that Plan A has failed, and endure the wrath of Pam. Both options lead to trouble. In the end, Charles continues to support the status quo (Plan A) as many people would.
- One might ask, "If Plan A is failing so obviously, and Charles can see it, why doesn't Pam see it?" Naturally, there can be many possible explanations. Two examples: Pam doesn't see it because she's a workplace perfectionist; or Pam does see it, but she has a personal Plan B.
One problem probably remains for any team that has a Plan B that hasn't yet been invoked. Most Plan Bs I've seen had never been subjected to the close scrutiny that was applied to Plan A. And most Plan Bs have sat on the shelf, ignored, since the day Plan A was officially declared active. The consequence of these two conditions is that Plan B might not be complete. And it's probably outdated. Before it's invoked, and before anyone starts advocating for a switch to Plan B, it's probably worth taking a look at Plan B to see how real it actually is. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Impasses in Group Decision Making: II
- When groups can't reach agreement on all aspects of an issue, the tactics of some members can actually
exacerbate disagreement. Here's Part II of an exploration of impasses, emphasizing two of the more toxic
- Some Hazards of Skip-Level Interviews: II
- Skip-level interviews are dialogs between a subordinate and the subordinate's supervisor's supervisor.
They can be both heplful and hazardous. Here's Part II of a little catalog of the hazards.
- The Perils of Novel Argument
- When people use novel or sophisticated arguments to influence others, the people they're trying to influence
are sometimes subject to cognitive biases triggered by the nature of the argument. This puts them at
a disadvantage relative to the influencer. How does this happen?
- Many "Stupid" Questions Aren't
- Occasionally someone asks a question that causes us to think, "Now that's a stupid question."
Rarely is that assessment correct. Knowing what alternatives are possible can help us respond more effectively
in the moment.
- Surviving Incompetence: I
- When your organization decides to undertake an effort that will certainly fail, you have options. Continuing
to oppose the decision probably isn't one of them. How can you respond to this incompetence and emerge
with your career intact?
See also Workplace Politics and Devious Political Tactics for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
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