photo of two inches of a measuring tape
February 18, 2019 //

The Evil Genius Syndrome

The Evil Genius Syndrome:  Rewarding the WHATs…while the HOWs are killing us.
-by President, Rikki Schwartz

When I sat down to write this blog, I decided to ask myself a question that would lead to a confession: “What is the biggest leadership mistake I’ve ever made?”.  And the answer jumped right off the blank page:  “I had kept everyone on my team who’d contributed to financial success”.

No.  That wasn’t a typo.  Rather, much like my decision to do so, it was a sadly intentional mistake.

In my 25+ year career (prior to coming to the Center for Agile Leadership), I led multiple teams of Project Managers. And my (sadly chronic) mistake was keeping folks around who met/exceeded our company’s productivity metrics, but who left a trail of collegial destruction behind in the process.

There’s a very old axiom in business, “you get what you measure”.   In short, it implies that, while leaders are good at establishing productivity metrics, often the wrong metrics are tracked (or even manipulated), such that the desired outcomes are missed entirely.  If you want one of my favorite examples of this, take a look at the different metrics that the competing airlines use in order to brag about their “on-time” performance.  Some use on-time departures, some use on-time arrivals and some use (often padded) flight durations…which (despite millions spent on statistical algorithms and marketing) still leaves us with no way to know which airline will most likely get us to Atlanta in time for our cousin’s wedding.

Of course, I didn’t run an airline….but I still “got what I measured” – the WHATs; while we all suffered miserably through what I wasn’t measuring – the HOWs.  And you all know that I wasn’t alone.

So why do we insist on measuring and incentivizing (and thereby focusing all of our energy) on a set of WHATs, to the exclusion of all the HOWs?

Often times (and certainly in my case), it’s a result of what I call The Evil Genius Syndrome.  How many times have you said “I know he is impossibly hard to get along with…but he’s so darn [fast, smart, innovative, etc.] at his job!!  I can’t afford to lose that!!” But this mental trap often overshadows its long-term impacts:  1) We have top-notch employees in the evil genius’ sphere of influence who became disgruntled and disengaged by the way he is behaving (which puts us at risk of losing THOSE employees); and 2) we are validating the evil genius’ behavior, and thereby reinforcing it as part of our culture (which inevitably sets up a tragically unhealthy cycle).

The good news?  There is something leaders can do to avoid/remedy this pitfall:  Design an appropriate set of S.M.A.R.T. goals that measure the HOW side of what you’re asking your employees to achieve.  For example, in the Agile world, self-organized/self-empowered teams cannot function long-term if they are infected with one or more “bullies”.  So, even if your employees meet/exceed every WHAT metric, but in the process alienate their team members (by being dismissive, uncooperative, un-collaborative, inflexible, etc. etc.), you will have now set it up such that those employees will NOT meet their HOW metrics…and performance conversations can be laser-focused accordingly.

I think we would all agree that how you treat customers and colleagues is just as important, if not more so, than the financial results you achieve.  The tricky part is putting that preach into practice.  It is ultimately up to those who occupy leadership roles within an organization to set the tone of the culture – i.e., to define what is “above or below the line”. This requires leaders to make it crystal clear (by example and by follow-through) that genuine collaboration is non-negotiable if you plan to work here.

Now it’s your turn to confess.  Are you a leader who is guilty of focusing on your employees’ WHATs, and ignoring their HOWs?  Do you think setting formal goals related to the HOWs is an important step in leadership? Do you already have a set of HOW-specific S.M.A.R.T. goals that you can share with the rest of us?  We’d love to hear from you!!

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