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Passion, People and Principles

How Did You Lose Your Innocence?

post # 211 — October 10, 2006 — a Careers, Client Relations, Managing, Strategy post

I have been doing a lot of client work in the last few weeks in many countries, meeting people young and old in professional businesses.

My message is one of the economic benefits of optimism, professionalism and high standards, but it is met most often with a dejected, beaten-down cynicism.

Many times during my latest trip I was told things like: “David. It would be very nice to have your ideals: to believe that the managers with the highest integrity get the best work and the highest profits out of the group they manage. But don’t task-masters and slave-drivers also get results?”

“It would be nice to believe that the way you get the best out of employees and clients is to try – at least try — and understand them as human beings, and get better, if necessary at meeting their human needs. But don’t such idealistic people get rejected in companies — can you really get promoted as a manager if you care about your people — or your customers — too much?”

I keep meeting people who have given up their ability to believe in the power of standards and ideals (or to believe that anyone else in business has them).

Some Examples

A consultant (age 50 or so), who worked for one of the most famous ‘brand names’ in consulting:

“I was as simple boy who grew up in the country. When I came to the city, they taught me that to get on in business you have to lie. You exaggerate and misrepresent in proposals in order to win the work, you claim to have done things you have not done. That’s the way the game is played, you are taught.”

A 30-year-old middle-level supervisor at a European-wide training program:

“The firm pretends that it wants to inspire us, but the truth is that we do boring work, and so do those more senior than us. We cannot imagine that there are people who do work they are still excited about. That’s a luxury we cannot dream about. They just want us to work harder and get the people who report to us to work harder.”

A partner in a tax firm:

“We know many ways to save our clients money, but that just would mean we would bill them less and take home less pay, so we don’t work at getting efficient. That would be the ‘right’ thing to do, and may even get us a good repuation in the long run, but no-one would seriously suggest changing to that way.”

A senior national-level director of a professional business, in charge of 6,000 people:

“It’s OK talking about all this quality and employee motivation stuff, David, but we just want to make money — lot’s of it. What’s wrong with that?”

So here’s my question to you: How did we / you end up here? Clearly, something was missing from my education and upbringing – the world forgot to “beat out of me” my ideals, but seems to have done a good job of beating them out of most other people.

I’m really interested: What (specifically) happened to you that made you lose your innocence about how business (or academia) was run? (Stories please.)


Lars Plougmann said:

A problem of horizon.

Those obsessed with making a quick buck tend to turn to sub-honest approaches. Professionalism, high standards and doing-the-right-thing pays off in the long run. Not everybody has the patience to reap the rewards.

If you are in a firm where managers are promoted because they risk the firm’s reputation or employee loyalty for short term profits – or if you don’t share the ideals of the firm’s partners – quit.

posted on October 11, 2006

David (Maister) said:

You believe that, Lars, and I believe that, but I just met thousands (literally) of people in my audiences who think that’s unrealistic, idealistic and fails to reflect the way the world works. If we are right, Lars, then why is te world filled with people who do not believe this? Who taught them what, and when?

posted on October 11, 2006

Alexander Kjerulf said:

What a great post!

I can’t answer your last question, because I never lost my business innocence – and never will :o)

But I think that the “money is all that matters” and “the ends justify the means” attitudes are very much a product of the industrial age.

Before that, agrarian societies had a very different, much more playful approach to work – and typically worked far less and far less arduously.

And while the dog-eat-dog approach didn’t even work too well in the industrial age, it is failing miserably in the creative, post-industrial information society.

You can pay peopple to show up. You can pay them to be jerks and managers.

But you can’t pay them to be creative, innovative and service oriented.

The cure: To let the creative, innovative, happy workplaces beat the pants off the old, boring ones – because we ARE that much more productive and efficient.

posted on October 11, 2006

Stephen Downes said:

My observation is that in organizations the primary requirement for advancement in leadership is obedience and compliance. The results of your work are pretty much irrelevant; what matters is your loyaty to the person who is in a position to promote you.

If you are in fact loyal to your managers, or if you are not in a position to be promoted (eg., by being self employed) it is not so easy to see this. But if you are inside and for some reason disloyal (because your manager is, shall we say, not worthy of loyalty) then it’s pretty easy to see. And in that light it becomes easy to see why bad managers become the norm – because they have to be the sort of people who would do anything, absolutely anything, for their superiors.

posted on October 11, 2006

Pat McGee said:

I was working on a 50-person Time and Materials (*not* fixed price) contract for the government. I had been on the project for 7 years, following it from contractor to contractor, the longest by far of anyone there. I had been a first-level supervisor, working with two teams of 4-5 people. But, I had gotten crosswise with my boss and had voluntarily gone back to being a worker bee.

My supervisor (whom I had hired to work for me a couple of years before) told me one day that he had heard complaints from three different people about me, one from his boss. He said, and I quote, “They say you’re being too much an advocate for the customer.”

I left the project a couple of hours later.


posted on October 11, 2006

Nick Saban said:

OK, you wanted stories, here goes.

I was recruited right out of a leading HR grad school to work for one of the top PC makers in the US.

The Friday before I show up the recruiter calls me to tell me that my boss (who I met less than a month before) was no longer with the company…no explanation. I walked out of orientation to meet my new boss, and he tells me that we are in the midst of planning a reduction in force. Within the first 3 months of my time there, we did 2 more reductions. Keep in mind the awkward position of being a new hire firing veterans.

When facing the possibility to reduce heads by a few more, I looked to move people into other areas where they might be more productive — as opposed to just firing them. My boss thought I was nuts. I know for a fact that my moves paid off. The people who moved into new roles (roles that were a good fit for their skills), thanked me repeatedly, and their performance soared; their sales numbers soared as well. Another seed I planted around this time blew away expectations a month later, but more importantly it blew away the team’s sales quota.

A few months further on, I hired back some people who were part of the earlier reductions. Again, many thought I was nuts. I thought it was a no-brainer because they had done the job before and left in good standing. The re-hires made an immediate positive impact on performance…and we were able to maintain their seniority. Everyone won.

I can go on, but from day one I was burned. I have never forgotten these lessons in the earliest part of my career, yet I still strive for the ideal.

So, David and everyone keep fighting the good fight. It does pay off.

posted on October 11, 2006

Sue Boggs said:

Fifteen years ago, I was only a few years into the work world at the headquarters of a (now defunct) Canadian clothing retailer. It fell prey to the second-generation family management syndrome. The division I worked for was awarded to the 33-year old daughter of the founder. Despite her B-school training, she quickly cracked under pressure. She executed all manner of knee-jerk management foibles, including a revolving door of buyers, last-minute changes to product lines, and enormous cost overruns in store renovations. She became an increasingly isolated and paranoid young chief executive. She had little accountability from above (she answered only to daddy) and surrounded herself with yes-men who manipulated her for their own gain. As for the rank and file, skepticism about her fitness for the job quickly eroded into cynical derision.

I was a mere underling, but my boss—who was, despite this bizzare situation, a great mentor—would discreetly address my naive questions. One day stands out in my memory. After a lot of discussion about a particular management decision, I said with alarm: “They really don’t know what they are doing!” And he replied: “That’s when you know you’ve grown up. When you figure out the people in charge don’t have a clue.”

The silver lining? There actually are good places to work (and leaders who really do know what they are doing) though perspective helps. Now when young colleagues complain about workplace dysfunction, I can tell them honestly—believe me, it could be worse.

posted on October 11, 2006

Joseph Heyison said:


Short term strategies, although they may have a lower average payoff in the long run for the survivors, are far less risky. The chance of earning 25% or 33% more than one’s peers five years from now by succeeding at being a Maisterist firm doesn’t look great if the anticipated failure rate is 80%.

You may remember the recurring whining about short-term thinking in business over the last 20 years. We don’t hear much of that recently — the short-termers won. What happened was that the long-term thinkers, on average, failed more than the opportunistic herd, although the long term thinkers that did survive did better. We’ve all learned that lesson. In an unpredictable, intensely competitive and often hostile environment, the individual manager applies a reasonable discount rate to an initiative at his peril. Or as we said at my former firm, “our internal hurdle rate is modest: 1,000% per day.”

posted on October 11, 2006

Tim King said:

Like Alexander, I’ve never given up my belief that standards and ideals are valuable. In fact, I believe they are key aspects of professionalism and of leadership, and thus are necessary to get ahead.

However, there was a time when I lost my innocence regarding what most businesses value. Specifically, initiative, which I value highly, is despised by many corporate machines. I lost my innocence when I got laid off from a small, tight-knit company and took a job at a larger, more “normal” corporation. It was 4 months of enthusiasm followed by a deep, dark depression. I’ve written about my story on my blog.


posted on October 11, 2006

Bo Warburton said:

I lost my innocence at American Management Systems (paradoxically where I first heard of David Maister) soon after graduating from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Goverment with a Master’s in Public Policy. The most senior people actively advocated “bait and switch” policies and focused on unpaid overtime as a way of boosting the profitability. RFP responses contained exaggerations (at least) and most projects were staffed with undertrained, inexpensive professionals. While AMS had some bright spots, my subsequent experiences with the professinal services divisions of several independent software vendors (an area often overlooked btw) seemed to show a consistent pattern of what you might call AOL style management: as long as there are new customers and staff, you can disappoint every existing one.

posted on October 11, 2006

Charles H. Green said:

Hmmm…by my count, 8 of the 9 comments here so far are idealists, along with David. Chastened, pragmatic, to be sure, but still feeling in David’s camp.

Only Joseph is saying there is a darn good explanation for why this behavior exists and it makes a lot of sense too.

I’m also with David, but since none of the cynics he runs into are adding to this blog, we need to do it for them. I also run into a lot of them—a talented mid-level European consultant a few weeks ago from two well-regarded firms tells me that she is being asked to basically misrepresent her skills; when I suggest she not do it, she shook her head and said I didn’t understand how powerful the forces were.

I actually do think I understand, but she’s right they’re very powerful. And Joseph’s point is well-taken; a huge advantage looks very small if you raise the hurdle rate enough. Payback time beats ROI when it comes to personal risk.

But there is one ray of hope. In this world which is getting increasingly connected, two things happen. First, any career or position with any particular firm is likely to be a lot shorter. Second, we all will increasingly run into each other with increasing frequency.

The implications are that each of us had better manage our own career, not leaving it to the whims of some medieval boss—because careers change more quickly, and we’re rid of that fellow.

And, if the reputation we have allowed to be built about us is negative, then we will increasingly run across people we have burned in the past. And they will increasingly tell others.

The connected nature of the world means bad behavior is more quickly generating negative payoffs for the bad behaver. This is a cause for optimism, I suggest, even if the pessimists are not presently crazy.

posted on October 11, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Joe, you really have thrown the gauntlet down! The war is over and the short-termers won, huh? (Except for the few surviving long-termers who are holding on to a false dream.)

Obviously, the facts look as if they are on your side. Most institutions are what you descrie. So what’s the implication if you are right? Do the rest of us give up? Do we try to rally the few of us left, go underground and plot the counter-revolution? It all sounds like a bad movie.

What are out choices if Joe is right? Does Charlie have it correct when he says that it could be fears for our reputation that will lead us to do ‘the right thing.”

Help me out, here, people. I’m losing my faith in mankind. Instead of Passion, People and Principles, maybe my blog title needs to become “Faking it, fighting for yourself and ..Forget about tomorrow.” How’s that for something to teach your children?

posted on October 11, 2006

Mark Schenk said:

One of the themes we are pursuing on the Anecdote blog is about bringing the humanity back into the organisation, so I guess we fall squarely in the idealist camp on this issue. But while Joe may be right about victory for the short-term camp, I believe they won a battle – not the war. Our sense of it (at least here in Australia) is at the cycle is moving as organisations realise ‘the myth of rational decision making’ and ‘the war for talent’ etc are more than just catchphrases. Vive le resistance!

posted on October 12, 2006

Alexander Kjerulf said:

Don’t worry David – Joe is wrong. He used to be right, but more and more businesses are starting to see what they’re missing out on through short-term thinking.

They’re also getting their asses kicked in the market place by modern outfits like Google, Southwest, Patagonia, WL Gore, Semco and many other.

The majority hasn’t come around yet. They will. Or they’ll go out of business because happy companies are waaaay more efficient than unhappy ones.

posted on October 12, 2006

stephen thomson said:

I can tell you exactly when it happened for me. I had worked since I was 10 years old at a paper-route and then at McDonalds through highschool, saving all my money to pay for college. I took a full course load and worked full time to get through the first year, then a scholarship kicked in. I worked and studied hard. The next summer I got a job washing windows for the college as a part of the aid package. We washed windows for about two days, then our supervisor, one of the school professors, came and inspected our our progress. She blew a gasket! The job was supposed to last all summer long, and we were 9/10ths the way done in two days! She warned us to slow down! The rest of the summer was spent washing one window a day and hanging out smoking dope (well not me but the others students).

The rest of my experience at college followed that pattern. We were assigned 5 books reading a day, and that first year it was amazingly hard to read it all. I discovered that most students didnt read it all, and noticed that some of the students would read one page and direct the entire professor interaction at that one page in order to avoid having to discuss the rest of the book. It took me a long time to learn that the professors not only knew about this behavior, but actually encouraged it. Those of us who actually did what we were told were belittled; those that learned to bullshit their way though the course were praised.

I couldnt handle this attitude, eventually dropped out and went on to make millions in the software industry working for people with a similar worldview as my own.

Perhaps my exposure in college helped me later in my career, but it has always made me a little bitter because now I am all too aware of how many people are bullshitting their way through life and..get this..many of them make better money and have more power than the honest workers of the world.

posted on October 12, 2006

Joseph Heyison said:

At the risk of overstaying my welcome, let me expand a bit.

First, let’s look at Charles Green’s points: “First, any career or position with any particular firm is likely to be a lot shorter. Second, we all will increasingly run into each other with increasing frequency.”

The first point reinforces my argument. If I’m unlikely to stay at an organization or in a business function, I have few incentives to act for the long term. What good is it for me to develop my juniors if 18 months from now I’m going to be somewhere else? The second point needs clarification. Yes, the velocity of our interactions is increasing. But that may mean we run into each other for much shorter, sound bite- like interactions in a much larger volume of contacts.

Once again Max Weber’s observations about the bureaucratizing impulse in modern society take hold. We move towards formal, rules-based interactions at the expense of personalized, trust-based relationships. It becomes far more important to follow the rules and play the game rather than act on idiosyncratic morals and individualized relationships. I’we written to David before about the erosion of trust as the glue in professional relationships.

The future: The zeitgeist may value mechanical adherence to rules (have you noticed all the checklists that infest our clients’ lives?) and instrumental relationships. Or, personal integrity and reputation may become more central to our ping-pong ball in a dryer-like lives, as personal anchors in the storm and as selling points when we leave the organization. But in either case we will draw strict lines between personal ethics and long-term thinking for the benefit of the organization. I may never backdate a stock option (and I’m proud to say I refused to do just that without getting fired), but I won’t object to the boss’s move to increase billable hours expectations and cut back on mentoring.

So, I think a lot of the commentary misses the mark. It’s fun to moan about how our loutish superiors or clients ask us to bend the rules or worse. I think David’s question, though, is “How do we encourage organization-building behaviors that also deter unethical or piggish conduct?” The answer, I suspect, is to develop strategies with short-term, obvious payoffs, and then hope that the advantages of long-term thinking begin to take over the mindset. Unfortunately, as a practicing lawyer, I don’t have an immediate example.

posted on October 12, 2006

Macz said:

I remember well when I lost my innocence. I was in a small startup that eventually grew to be about 25 million in revenue with about 120 people. After 7 years, I became a partner and CTO. We had an even did an A round of financing for 17 million… all was going swimingly.

Then the president of the company hired his brother’s best friend to be my employee because he was “good with computers.”

That guy now has my job. (This was about 4 years ago)

I went on to start another business, which was purchased by one of the largest three letter technology companies in the world. I now work there. But I no longer have my doe eyed, idealistic, be loyal to the company and it will be loyal to you idealism.

Individuals can have ethics and ideals but mobs generally don’t. Corporations are simply highly organized, profit centric mobs.

posted on October 12, 2006

Eric Bostrom said:

When the BSA was making a lot of fuss and noise, I presented a comprehensive proposal to get my company’s software legit. I had inherited a hodge podge mess of licensing, where 1 copy of software was used on 50 computers. The tab was going to be $30 or $40k, and the president of the company decided to pass on getting legit. He called it “Conditional Ethics” and I’ve never forgotten that phrase.

Eventually I was able to come up with a plan that increased my budget $1k per month, and I spent a lot of time getting our licensing straight. It didn’t clean the stain of hearing someone I respected say that phrase, though.

posted on October 12, 2006

Richard Thornton said:

How I became jaded: My older brother is an Industrial Engineer, who was working at a textile plant when I was in high school. People folding socks were paid by the pair, “piece work”. One came up with a technique that allowed her to fold socks three times as fast as before. Her reward? To my brother the solution was obvious: cut the pay rate by two thirds. He was so devoted to the employer that he once laid himself off because it was in the best interest of the employer.

I think part of the problem is metrics. Dollars and hours are easy to count. Satisfaction, productivity, innovation, originality aren’t. Great thread, by the way.

posted on October 12, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Yes, I, too, think this is turning into a great thread. Don’t let’s let it die. Let’s argue both sides and think through what can be done. Joe, you’ll never outstay your welcome. You create arguments and reasoning (and facats) that are tough to refute and that keeps us all honest. Don’t go away.

posted on October 12, 2006

David Zatz said:

I am new to business consulting, still focused on business development, and have not lost my innocence and don’t plan to. I have 26 years of CPG industry experience where I’ve seen attitudes and events similar to the examples described in this thread, but more often than not, doing the “right thing” delivers in the long run, both personallyand professionally. Not always but often. I think the arguments to do what’s best for your clients laid out in “True Professionalism” are valid and proven. I think the key is to be long term focused instead of short term. While I’ve only been consulting for 4 months, I’m determined to do what’s best for my firm’s client’s and potential clients and let the rewards of that behavior speak for itself.

posted on October 12, 2006

Charles H. Green said:

Joseph Heyson says, “If I’m unlikely to stay at an organization or in a business function, I have few incentives to act for the long term. What good is it for me to develop my juniors if 18 months from now I’m going to be somewhere else?

The answer is, because you’re increasingly likely to run into those same people at other firms in their own careers, same as you, because they will not be staying any longer than you will. And they have long memories, large Outlook databases , they hang around social networks, tell their friends about you, and so forth. You develop your juniors because they will benefit and, in the long run, you will do so as well by behaving in ways that benefit them and others, because you become known as someone who can be trusted and cares about others. Which, as this blog is pointing out, has come to be relatively rare in recent years.

In other words, the “long term” is finally transcending corporate boundaries.

The phenomena that David is describing are very real, but I think also on the way out. When careers lasted only a firm or two in a lifetime, it made sense to talk about corporate loyalty, and about incentives based on corporate tenure. No company in the world can offer that now, and that’s a good thing.

Shorter career tenure doesn’t mean less loyalty; it means the concept of “loyalty” no longer applies to artificial enitites like corporations. “Loyalty” returns to its longer-term much deeper meaning—namely loyalty to and between individual human beings, and I would argue we’ll see much stronger loyalty than the fake price-based stuff that masquerades as “loyalty programs” in business.

The fact that the world is becoming more connected—at the individual level, not the corporate level—is good grounds for thinking that beggar-thy-neighbor behaviors are increasingly going to be punished quickly. Look at how fast the stock options dominos are falling, for example.

Fast punishment for violation of social norms is a pretty good way to generate widely acceptable business behaviors. Probably more effective than a lot of ethics programs, certainly more efficient than Sarbanes-Oxley-type legislation, and capable of doing a lot of social good.

posted on October 12, 2006

Alex McCafferty said:

Here’s the day I lost my innocence, David. I was 14 and my father walked out on my family because his work was more important than looking after a sick wife. And this was not a case of having to give up everything to look after her – it would have been perfectly feasible to achieve less in business but achieve more as a husband and father. I firmly believe that all of us lose our passion and our principles when we forget that we are people … whole people, not only business people. In that sense, I’m with the Anecdote guys. But I think that you know that, too, because this column of yours is headed “Passion, People, Principles”.

Your four examples have all made a choice that has affected them as people and negatively in that they seem to be depressed, defensive, in denial or ashamed. But they need to remember that it is still their responsible choice. I’m not pretending that the choices are easy, especially as the rewards are apparent in entirely different realms of which the only one we measure is financial. When there’s talk of triple bottom line accounting, I reckon it’s time to add a few more lines for what really counts.

Your message might be one of the economic benefits of optimism, professionalism and high standards and bravo for it, but I suspect it is met most often with a dejected, beaten-down cynicism because, really, people need more than economic benefits.

posted on October 12, 2006

Richard Thornton said:

I am in sales and have been for nearly twenty years, mostly in environmental/waste disposal services. I am constantly frustrated by the marketing that management generates, i.e., the customer comes first, versus the way they operate, the bottom line comes first, and how quickly they forget when you help them out of crisis, because they are now demanding that you solve the next crisis. We seem to always be looking for customers who solve our problems (don’t require anything non-routine) rather than trying to solve theirs. As I write I am getting a voicemail from a customer who is desperate for a price proposal that I emailed to management yesterday. I’ve been talking to them about it all day, and now at day’s end, they’re still quibbling about the format in an attempt to disguise surcharges. Where are these far-sighted companies, and are they hiring?

posted on October 13, 2006

Alexei Ghertescu said:

David, if everything’s so bad in the world, than it’s surprisingly enough how you manage to earn money telling people about PASSION and PRINCIPLES, isn’t it? I think it means that there is SOMETHING in all these principles.

posted on October 14, 2006

Debbie said:

I lost my innocence as a first year lawyer. I handled medical malpractice defense work. We had a very bad situation arise involving a freak incident in the well baby nursery. I was sent to the hospital administrator’s office to “coach” her about what to say and how to say it to keep as much information privileged (and away from the parents) as possible, with the head partner of the health law group on the speakerphone with us. It was then I learned about what I call the “lawyer lie” – not really lying, but not providing all the information available and completely expected and “ethical” under the rules of zealous representation. Years later, after I stopped practicing, listening to Bill Clinton parse the definition of “is” brought back those lawyer lie memories.

posted on October 16, 2006

David (Maister) said:

I am fascinaated with all of this, but especially the interplay between two old friends, Joe and Charlie, both of whom I respect. Joe Heyson thinks loyalty is dead.

Is it relevant, Joe, that the two worlds that you focus on most are lawyers and bankers? I do think those two contexts are particularly skeptical and cynical worlds. As Debbie pointed out, lawyers are particularly well-disposed through their training to manipulate shades of truth. (Charlie has a good article in the worrks on this topic)

Charlie believes that trustworthiness and loyalty are becoming more valuable not less – in my bones I want to believe this, but Joe’s comment elsewhere on this blog is hard to refute – these things pay off in the long run, but if you have a high net discount rate on the future, the net presentvalue may NOT be higher.

Alexei, the fact that people pay me a lot of money to preach my sermons proves nothing – the world is filled with people who go to their church, synagogue or mosque, put money in the collection plate, and then, feeling cleansed, go back to sinning!

posted on October 16, 2006

Dennis Howlett said:

I’ve been offline a few days so only just caught up with this. I don’t think it’s that difficult to understand:

Freeing up markets 1980s

‘Greed is good’ to loud applause in ‘Wall Street’

Almost zero consequences for fraudulent behaviour – most of the time

An entitlement profession that is becoming increasingly politicised as it seeks to consolidate its priveleges – 1990s>2000s

Innocence? We’ve got a shameless generation. 

posted on October 16, 2006

Peter Kua said:

In Consultants: The love-hate-kill relationship:

Nailaa aptly says it all, “Consultants are people who CON and inSULT you.” She knows better because she used to be an ex-business consultant. Until her conscience got the better of her.

You see, my bosses (WDC and MK) will come out with brilliant ideas to help businesses to reduce costs. Our professional fees are calculated as a function of the savings we can achieve for the company, for example, if we promise a returns on investment (ROI) of 400%, that means for every USD10,000 they invest in us, they get a USD40,000 savings.

They often have to jack up the savings figure in order to justify our professional fees. And how do they do it? Simple mathematical manipulation – just work backwards! If we want to earn USD1 million from this client, we’ll make sure we can show them how we can help them reduce cost by USD4 million! At all cost. Using the most unrealistic assumptions. Just to get them to buy the project (and of course, feed us!).

So WDC and MK were able to get this latest project, and in order to impress the client, they had promised an astronomical sum of savings. And how they proposed to do it is to retrench hundreds of people, whether they are performing or not, by changing the business model completely. The promised savings is very tempting I must say. But deep down, I was in total disagreement…

posted on October 18, 2006

Mike said:


I find you question fascinating because you’ve already answered it twice yourself. I think that people lose their innocence when they classify people as ‘them’ (at which point those ‘thems’ can be marginalized for the convenience of ‘us’). Joe and Charlie basic disagreement is over the likelihood of having to create an ‘us’ relationship with a former ‘them’.


posted on October 19, 2006

Bill Peper said:

It is great to return to the blog in the midst of a great conversation! This is an important topic for everyone in business, as cynicism is so common throughout every industry and walk of life.

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There appear to be a number major issues running through this blog.

The first issue — and the most important — is why are there so many beaten-down, cynical employees working in various professions. These professionals appear to have lost the ability to believe that that employing the high standards and ideals David describes is possible in today’s business environment. It is important to note that this phenomenon is not limited to the professions, and that vast numbers of people are disgruntled in many aspects of their lives.

Data collected by the Gallop organization confirms this wide-spread problem in the work place. Only 25% of employees are engaged in their jobs, while 60% are disengaged and 15% are “actively disengaged.” Leigh Branham, in his excellent book, 7 Hidden Reasons Why Employees Leave, concludes that the number one reason for dissatisfaction and cynicism is that the employee’s reality does not meet his/her expectations in a given area.

Expectations do not have to be based in reality. Many live in a fantasy world that the six numbers on today’s lotto ticket will match; a new significant other will bring constant bliss; and the Lone Ranger and Tonto will be coming over the hill any second to extradite them from the consequences of the disasters they have created. People are very prone to fantasize about the future benefits of a new job — reduced stress, climbing income, constant promotions, and no jerks as managers like the last office. When the job does not meet these unrealistic projections, cynicism grows naturally.

My guess is that workplace cynicism is a natural rationalization for a lack of individual success. It is certainly easier on the psyche to dismiss the achievements of anyone in a similar position than honest introspection. Many employees show little initiative or passion, accurately described by < ?xml:namespace prefix =" st1" ns =" "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags"" />Jeff Angus in Management by Baseball, as “roster plaque — the unambitious who expect to give a half-hearted effort for half-hearted income.”

David seems to have avoided this cynicism cycle by his talent, professional credentials, and operating his career in accord with the principles he preaches. The cynicism described in this blog is rare in people who continue to strive for excellence and personal growth. Cynicism is infinitely more likely in those who are cruising or who have allowed themselves to become defeated.

As Jim Rohn has noted:

“What we ponder and what we think about sets the course of our life. Any day we wish; we can discipline ourselves to change it all. Any day we wish, we can open the book that will open our mind to new knowledge. Any day we wish, we can start a new activity. Any day we wish, we can start the process of life change. We can do it immediately, or next week, or next month, or next year.

“We can also do nothing. We can pretend rather than perform. And if the idea of having to change ourselves makes us uncomfortable, we can remain as we are. We can choose rest over labor, entertainment over education, delusion over truth, and doubt over confidence. The choices are ours to make. But while we curse the effect, we continue to nourish the cause. As Shakespeare uniquely observed, “The fault is not in the stars, but in ourselves.” We created our circumstances by our past choices. We have both the ability and the responsibility to make better choices beginning today.”

David asks for examples of how we “lost our innocence” about how business is run. Based on my professional experiences, anyone looking for a reason to become cynical could find an excellent justification for complaining about some injustice without much effort nearly every day. My profession, law, proved an unseemly business within the first days of my serving as a law clerk.

While you may be right in your complaint or observation of the dysfunction of the business world, as Susan Page noted when describing marriage in her excellent book, How One of You Can Bring the Two of You Together, being right often can be the true booby prize in life:

“The problem with being right about the way you you analyze your problem is that that’s all you get. That is it. You get to be right. You don’t get to solve the problem. You don’t get to be closer to your spouse. You don’t get to reduce the conflict in your relationship. You don’t get to stop feeling angry. You don’t get the changes you long for.

Being right is a dead end. Life just stops there. Nothing else happens. People all around you are actively striving for the gold medal in their relationships, while you sit clinging as if for life to the booby prize in yours, possibly for years.” (p. 30)

The cynical employees described here spend their time complaining about how unfair life is. The much wiser course of action is discovering what you can control and doing something to make the situation better.

The key determinant of whether one succumbs to the cynicism described here is how he/she responds to the challenges and tribulations of life. Although an excellent student, I was never the smartest Peper in my class. My twin brother got a 100% in every class until high school, and he was n all-state basketball player. I have always been grateful for him, as he forced me to realize very early in life that I would never get anywhere if I obsessed with his success rather than focusing on my own personal growth and destiny.

More observations to come on the Joe and Charlie exchange.

posted on October 21, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Bill – you say “workplace cynicism is a natural rationalization for a lack of individual success.” Tough love, buddy! But one that makes you examine your own motives.

I prefer your other point – which seems to be: “yeah, the dice are stacked but what are you gonna do about it anyway?”

Is that right?

posted on October 22, 2006

Miika Niemelä said:

I’ll stick with the original question still, sorry:

When did I lose my innocence? Great question, don’t know exactly, but I know exactly when it hit me.

I work at IT-industry, at the time my ideals got raped by realism I was working in a growing company, that was a nice place to work. The problem was, that I got a lousy pay, the company though made good money.

There was no charm in working, because when you were done, you would only get another tough job, and after that another… It really killed my ideals of happy and interesting work.

A few months later it hit me:

One day I could not get my self up from the bed on the morning, I called my boss and said that I will not be showing up today. The doctor wrote me a sick leave for 2 weeks, reason: depression. (after that I was unable to work efficiently for a very very long while).

After losing the ideal, I lost all belief in work. There suddenly was no reason to get up, no reason to work harder. What good is it to work your butt of, if you are only rewarded with more work?

After getting my act back together (took me three years) I have fanatically defended my ideals and standards, because they are the only thing that keep me going. I have quit a few jobs because the seniors and managers there are working just for the money. I will not tolerate managementshit and short term BS.

And by everything I hold dear, it is not easy to keep it up. Thanks to all of you who still believe, and mercy to those who have given up. You surely are in the losing edge of the barrel.

posted on October 27, 2006

Manny said:


I read your remarkable “Managing the Professional Service Firm” in the 90s and it is a classic for me. My field was very “prestige” and “buzz” driven, but I always ran my practice with an eye toward helping the client get the results THEY wanted, not what I wanted. In particular (as your book taught me) I kept the client in the loop on scheduling, always took elaborate notes to make sure I knew what was really being asked of me, and always, always tried to use my creativity IN THE SERVICE OF THE ENGAGEMENT and not as an end in itself.

The result: while there were plenty of successes in our field who pulled in business on “flash” and “buzz”, the core values of honest, caring, fast, and transparent service kept me working steadily and profitably. It seems there is always a client who can use that sort of supplier. Thank you for setting me on that path


posted on November 1, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Thanks, Manny. It’s comments like yours that help me keep going.

posted on November 1, 2006

Danielle Keister said:

What a great post! I’ve been thinking a lot on this subject myself (and look how the universe brought me to your site!) as I’ve seen a similar decline in professionalism and standards in my profession of Virtual Assistance. In fact, my extreme frustration with lack of integrity (i.e., not just honor and honesty, but in value and quality) led me to form my own Virtual Assistant professional association—the Virtual Assistance Chamber of Commerce (http://www.VirtualAssistantNetworking.com). I think what led us to this current state of affairs might be attributed, at least in some part, to the economy. I wonder if the fact that so many are scrambling to earn just enough to live and barely pay the bills has put people in survival mode where they will try to make money any way they can, even if that means lying, cheating and manipulating. I think it’s a horrible development, and it’s certainly not a very flattering commentary on our society. I have found it very disheartening! Establishing my own organization that promotes ideals of excellence and standards and asks its members to be accountable for the quality and integrity of the services they offer is my small way of helping influence a positive change, not just in my profession, but in the business world overall. Can’t wait to read more on this subject.

posted on November 6, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Danielle, thanks for joning in and welcome. I’m very impressed with your website and what you’re doing. As I tried to point out in my book TRUE PROFESSIONALISM, we often ask people in admin roles to live to higher professional standards than those they work for – and they do!

Keep the faith and spread the word!

posted on November 6, 2006

Sharon McGann said:

I lost my “innocence” when my boss said “I don’t care what you actually do in your training department, I only care that you present an image of professionalism. Your budget is $X, how hard you want to work is your choice”.

I gained some “wisdom” when I realised that I enjoyed turning out 100% work, so even if the budget was only 80% of what I thought was needed, I wanted to strive and inspire my team to feel successful if they could achieve 100% of 80% (our version of the pareto principle).

I do empathise with Bill’s views in that I think there are too many firms where the unspoken request is to do the right thing by the organisation and / or the client and not the individual and that’s where I think a lot of cynicism arises.

Eg we did an outdoor activity once which clearly showed that the biggest profits came if we funnelled clients through to division C and its comprehensive services, but it took two years to change the remuneration and pricing so that it was in the interests of the professionals in division A & B to funnell the clients through. In the interim, those professionals lived with the constant dilemma of “I’m being selfish if I don’t, but I’m giving up my income if I do”.

posted on November 6, 2006