It’s been eight years since I began my life as a professional in the American workplace. Most of my time (95%) has been spent as a management consultant. Management consulting just means providing advice to those in charge of running a business. So, that’s what I do. As a consultant, it is usually my job to deliver difficult messages and provide advice on how to improve business processes. The obesity epidemic in America serves as an excellent metaphor for American business – where business has gotten fat, lazy, and soft. I grew up in the 80’s and remember my Dad telling me horror stories about what happened to the unproductive and inefficient – they were canned without a second thought. Boy, have things changed. What happened to survival of the fittest and the great American meritocracy? Meritocracy has become mediocrity.
I’m no human resources expert, but in my experience HR departments are absolutely petrified of firing people today. I think this is one of the reasons for the success of the Donald Trump reality television show. People are living vicariously through Mr. Trump because they know that no one else can actually do what he’s doing. Back in real reality, I bet the words, “you’re fired” haven’t been uttered at a fortune 1000 company in the past decade. Instead of firing the incompetent, companies hire contractors to do the work that their own employees should be qualified to do. In the end, this is all about litigation and the increasing complexity of where the locus of responsibility resides. In American at least, it no longer resides in each individual. I think responsibility was last seen hanging around the ozone layer somewhere. People sue for spilling coffee on themselves, for their children getting fat, and for getting fired from their job for being a slacker. In my grandparent’s generation this would have been laughable. We’ve become a nation of wussies.
This situation is only compounded by the fact that many C level executives have become so out of touch that even if they have a strategy it is hopelessly out of date. In this environment, employees are afraid to make even the simplest of decisions. Management has become immobilized because they’re neither rewarded for achievements nor reprimanded for failure. Every parent knows that children thrive in a structured, well-disciplined environment where they understand the rules and what is expected of them. The very same rule applies to adults. When adult employees are put into a situation where there is very little structure and no discipline they get confused and immobilized: days become week, weeks become years and not much gets done as a result.
Even with the best and brightest coming in from undergrad or business school at the lower ranks, there is no way for them to succeed in this environment. This equation ends up looking a lot like an hourglass where the middle (management) becomes the single biggest bottleneck to change and innovation. Is there anything we can do? If I’ve learned anything by reading history it is that trends do come and go. I’m hoping that this litigious, lethargic, lunacy will too come to pass.