There’s an old story about two people walking through the woods. One of them, Pete Ahtear, is a track star. The other, that famous dessert maker Eaton Flanagan, may be an expert in the kitchen, but is not otherwise known for his speedy movement. As the two men are walking, they hear behind them the unmistakable sounds of a very hungry bear.
“That doesn’t sound good,” says Flanagan.
“That sounds like a hungry bear!” replies Ahtear. “Don’t you have a pot of honey or something you could toss at it to distract it?”
“Sorry, fresh out of honey.”
At that point, Pete Ahtear sits down, pulls his track shoes out of his backpack, and quickly puts them on.
“Even you can’t outrun a bear!” exclaims Flanagan.
“I don’t need to outrun the bear,” replies Ahtear with, it must be admitted, a somewhat smug tone to his voice. “I only need to outrun you.”
Indeed, were we to look at these two men, the truth of Ahtear’s statement could hardly be more obvious: one, a slender athlete in prime physical condition; the other, well, let us just say that Eaton Flanagan is a man whose skill at making desserts is exceeded only by his enjoyment of eating those desserts. Losing weight, given the time available, is not an option. Although quite possibly as large as that pursuing bear, regrettably Flanagan is sadly lacking in the sharp teeth and long claws department. On the scale of bears, Flanagan may be more closely likened to “Teddy” than “Grizzly.”
Speaking of bears, it’s getting closer.
Thinking quickly, Flanagan knocks Pete Ahtear to the ground, kicks him, and then uses the window of opportunity thereby created to tie Pete’s shoelaces together. Flanagan then lumbers off. He may not be able to outrun a bear, but he can now outrun Pete Ahtear. What follows is best left to the imagination.
As a further exercise of the imagination, consider how this philosophy might play out in a large corporation. What would outrunning the bear look like? What would such a competitive atmosphere do to employee cooperation and collaboration? How about problem solving and innovation?
Unfortunately, according to a number of articles about Microsoft, we don’t need to use our imaginations. Microsoft is one of a number of businesses that practice the fine art of “employee stacking.” In other words, employees are rated on a performance scale. The top performers are highly rewarded, while the bottom performers are… not. Sounds good, right? After all, won’t this push people to constantly push themselves to excel, and won’t it weed out the weakest performers?
Sadly, that’s not what’s happening at Microsoft. Excelling and taking on a risky project or trying something new are often mutually exclusive. Furthermore, what constitutes “excelling” can vary with comparison to others. In fact, as more than one Microsoft employee observed, they quickly learned to look like they were cooperating with their teammates, while actually withholding critical information or otherwise sabotaging their progress. In other words, when the performance review bear is approaching, all I really need to do is outrun you. That can happen in a great many ways: as Eaton Flanagan so ably demonstrated, not all of them involve actually being a better runner.
The side-effects of the Microsoft Way are far-reaching and not always immediately obvious. It goes well beyond employees sabotaging one another in order to make themselves look good. Hiring is effected: will you really hire someone more skilled than you are if that might push you down the rankings? Or will you prefer to hire people less skilled so that someone else will take the fall? What will that do to the overall level of employee skill? What about problem solving? When the goal is to make sure someone else trips and falls, are we going to fix the problem or merely fix blame? How about team work? Are you really going to ask to be on a team with other high performers? It’s much safer to be surrounded by bear food than it is to work with someone who might be able to run faster than you. How badly will that reduce collaboration, creativity, innovation, and product quality?
Now, one might make the argument that Microsoft’s approach can’t be that bad. After all, they became the world’s largest software company and still dominate the PC market. Indeed, outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer was quoted in one article swearing by employee stacking. He thinks it’s wonderful.
It is possible that during the 1980s and 1990s, when Microsoft was surfing the great PC technology wave, that Microsoft’s review process really did produce high performance. Possible, but unlikely. Far more likely is that having a hot product in a rapidly growing market protects you from a lot of errors. When Microsoft’s stock was doubling practically every year, it was easy for them to constantly hire the best people. Most of those people were motivated to achieve not primarily because of the employee stacking system but because they were excited by their work, the company’s vision, and, yes, the stock options. So what if some of them become bear food? There are always more where they came from! Even if your teams are performing at only a fraction of what they are capable of, being in the right place with the right product can be enough for a long time.
Microsoft today is in an interesting position. As I’ve written about in several articles and books, they lost their way in 2000. While some people have argued that employee stacking is the reason for Microsoft’s malaise, it’s really only one factor. Granted, it is a very serious factor: at a time when Microsoft most needs to regain the innovative vision and energy of its early days, that pursuing bear means that few people indeed are going to be taking any chances.
But wait! Shouldn’t the creative vision come from the top? If that were to happen, wouldn’t that solve the problem? While vision may come from the top, leaders are more creative when they are surrounded by creative people. People staring at the ground, looking for an opportunity to trip up their colleagues, are not looking ahead and imagining the future. That’s an awful lot of psychological inertia for a leader to overcome.
In the end, when employees are forced to compete with one another, your productivity gains are brief and inevitably cost you far more than they are worth. It’s always easier to outrun your buddy than the bear, particularly when tripping your buddy is all it really takes.
At least the bear eats well.
Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” Steve’s latest book, “Organizational Psychology for Managers,” is due out from Springer in 2013. For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit www.7stepsahead.com. You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or email@example.com.