This week, I want to bring you on this journey that goes back a couple of years. Picture the scene. I was about to ‘pull the trigger’ on a guy that reported into me. He had been underperforming for quite a while and had recently stepped over the line. I was meeting the Full-Time Union Official – simply as a courtesy – to tell him what was about to happen. After he’d heard the details, he made the point: “Why don’t you give him a break. That guy was born with a rusty spoon in his mouth. ”
Poverty Explained: It was a graphic description of poverty and a timely reminder that not all of us have equal privilege. The question around why some people are poor is one of the perennial debates in sociology. A number of structural causes are normally put forward to explain why individuals find it difficult to escape the poverty trap. These include:
Low Income: You’re one of a large number of children whose parents never finished second level school.
Family Support: Your parent’s work in minimum wage jobs. Your father does not support you in any way (€ or emotionally).
Educational Difficulties: You are gifted with average intelligence. People rarely show interest in your schoolwork.
Social Capital: You don’t know anyone well who’s been to college. You’ve no real idea what you’d do in college since you don’t have any exposure to the professions.
Role Models: The only people around you that have money are criminals. Everyone else is poor and a lot of them manage on welfare. No one expects you to be any different.
Reduced Opportunities: The job you secure is 20 hours a week, pays minimum wage, has few benefits and barely pays for the petrol used to drive there.
Low Expectations: The goal that everyone seems to have for you is to stay off drugs and stay out of Prison.
Moral Fibre: There is an alternative right wing view that sees poverty as an outcome of the absence of moral fibre (essentially, a lack of character). This includes a fear of working hard, acceptance of state handouts, using money for immediate pleasure, substance abuse and so on. Evidence for this is often grounded around stories of individuals who started out in poor circumstances, but managed to scramble up the mountain and become successful. Those individuals sometimes love telling their own ‘rags to riches’ story a la Bill Cullen. Indeed, this view of the world has some universal appeal. It makes the rest of us feel ‘We’ve earned our success’ (better than admitting we were just lucky to be born into a particular family and social strata). Overall, the ‘lack of moral fibre’ argument is a minority view as an explanation for poverty. The general consensus in the literature is that (a) there will always be exceptional individuals who can overcome adversity (b) for every career that poverty ‘supports’, it blights 100 others. To summarize, while there are elements of truth in both perspectives, poverty can be better understood by a range of structural factors rather than being the outcome of individual underperformance. John Lonergan was the former Governer of Mountjoy Prison in Dublin. He regularly said: “It’s not just a coincidence, that most of the inmates come from 4 or 5 postal districts”.
Tackling Underperformance: In organizations, a similar debate sometimes takes place when underperformance occurs. When an organization (entire business or a particular section) underperforms, the question ‘why’ is raised. In broad terms, underperformance occurs for one of two reasons. A range of ‘structural reasons’ can negatively impact performance or it can be down to a lack of individual effort or talent. The structural elements can include changing market conditions, new regulations, key competitor moves, lack of talent in the organization (a failure of previous leadership) and so on. Professor Charles McCarthy (RIP) in Trinity College, in his book The Decade of Upheaval declared: “Very often, the events were too great for the men”. McCarthy understood that the wave is sometimes bigger than the swimmer and people cannot always cope with this. At other times, it’s absolutely correct to take someone off a project or take them out of the organization entirely. Central Point: ‘Underperformance’ is typically diagnosed as a lack of individual talent. However, just like the poverty example cited, there are often hidden structural elements which help to explain how performance gets derailed.
In the end, we decided not to fire the guy. It’s a couple of years ago now and he never became a star performer, but he did knuckle down. In this instance the union official was right and I was wrong. As a Leader, your role is to separate truth from fiction. And, just like a surgeon in Beaumont Hospital, you have to be careful that you don’t remove the wrong organ.
PS: Absolutely Brilliant Video: Noel Hennessey sent this on to me. It is really worth a couple of minutes of your time. I challenge you to watch this and not be moved by it. Perhaps use it with your own staff?
Lighter Moment: The Locker Room. A bit sexist, but still funny. Look away now if you are of a sensitive disposition….
Several men are in the locker room of a golf club. A Mobile phone on the bench rings. A man getting dressed engages the hands-free speaker function and begins to talk. Everyone else stops to listen.
WOMAN: “Hi Honey, it’s me. Are you at the club?”
WOMAN: “I’m shopping in Grafton Street and found this gorgeous leather coat. It’s only €2,000. I was thinking of buying it”
MAN: “Why not? Go ahead if you like it that much”
WOMAN: “Earlier this morning, I stopped by the Lexus dealership in Blackrock and had a quick look at the new models. There was one beauty that I really liked. Low emissions so the annual tax is practically for nothing”
MAN: “How much?”
MAN: “OK, but for that price I want all the options. Top Spec”
WOMAN: “Great! Oh, just one more thing. I was just talking to Janie and found out that the Penthouse Apartment I looked at last year in the IFSC is back on the market. Wow! It’s great value now. It’s down to €780,000”
MAN: “Make an offer of €700,000. In this climate, they’ll probably take it. If not, go the extra eighty-thousand if it’s what you really want”
WOMAN: “OK. I love you so much. See you later!
MAN: “Bye! Love you, too”
The man hangs up. The other men in the locker room are staring at him in astonishment, mouths wide open. He turns and asks: “Anyone know who owns this phone?”
PPS: Charity Event: On of the regular readers of this blog, Donie Wiley, is just about to celebrate a big birthday. As part of this he wants to work with a charity for a week. It’s a novel idea. Have a look at (www.aweekinmay.com) and contact Donie directly if you have any ideas around this.
Know someone who’d benefit from this blog? Ask them to email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll add them to the list. Check our website http://www.tandemconsulting.ie or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.