FARNAM STREET

The Appearance of Performance: How to Get Ahead by Playing the Game

“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” — Proverb
(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes things are not as they appear. Let me tell you about two people I know who work for the same organization, Pat and James (not their real names). These two people will seem familiar to you. You might even be one of them. While their approaches and effectiveness differ, they are nice people; you’d trust your kids with both of them.

Pat fits in with the clubby corporate culture. In fact, this might be his best skill. He does as instructed, doesn’t argue, wears the same type of suit as everyone else and generally gets along with everyone. He does the same work as everyone else in the same way. He doesn’t stick out in any meaningful way. He invests a lot of time to make sure his boss is happy. Everyone loves Pat.

If you were to ask his superiors about him, they would say things like  “he’s a good guy” and “he gets stuff done.”

Over the next five years, I expect he’ll be given roles of increasing responsibility and he won’t make many visible mistakes. Pat understands politics and sometimes says things he has no intention of doing.

How can I describe James…well,  he’s the opposite of Pat. He wears what he wants, doesn’t care about fitting in, questions most things, and isn’t a slave to his paycheck.

James’ view is that its more important that you say something than how you say it. He phrases things in a way that seems to perpetually annoy people. He has a habit of (unintentionally, if you get to know him) making people think on the spot by asking simple questions. His three favorites are “how,” “why,” and lastly, “and then what?”

I like to think of him as Nassim Taleb working in a bureaucracy. If you’re unfamiliar with Taleb, he’s the philosopher and mathematician who most recently wrote the best-selling book Antifragile.

Like Nassim, James doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean, even for “optics.” While he hates politics, he’s brutally honest to everyone regardless of level. James is the guy that points out why your solution fixes the symptom but fails to address the root problem. When people hear him do this—and I’ve been in some meetings with him when it happens—the first and natural reaction is to get upset and ask if he’s got a better idea. He doesn’t, he just knows why yours won’t work.  Not wanting to waste time, the proposed solution gets implemented and, of course, it fails for the very reason he outlined in advance. He’s annoying, to say the least.

Although he tries to approach things in a thoughtful way, James’ superiors would question the value he adds to the organization.

People in organizations find it hard to see what James does; he prefers to avoid problems than to solve them. He doesn’t want to be the fragilista that makes knee jerk reactions. Naive intervention is not his idea of fun.

In a strange way Pat and James make a good team. They sort of balance each other out. Complex organizations need the skills they both bring but they tend to value the skills of Pat more than the skills of James. Most of us have a little bit of Pat and James in us. But organizations generally prefer—and reward—more of one than the other.

The people who solve problems get the rewards. They have better stories, they are seen as doing things, etc. It doesn’t matter, for example, that Pat is in an endless loop of solving problems he’s created with his previous solutions.

He’s doing stuff and it is visible. He’s perpetually active and busy, but it’s not essential. To James this pattern is pointless.

While he’s been promoted frequently in the past, James has reached a level where promotions are more political than merit based. And when promotions become more political they become about stories and relationships. These stories tend to be how you’re the hero and all the problems you’ve solved. They tend to be about visible things.

It’s much harder to tell stories about the problems you’ve avoided.

Pat keeps getting promoted. He’s got a better story. And in a world where we spend more time showing people how valuable we are than actually being valuable, he’s got an edge over James when it comes to promotions.

This is something I’m increasingly seeing in organizations. People are paid—well, I might add—to fix problems not to avoid them.

Fixing problems is visible. It’s demonstrable. It shows our bias towards action. It gives you a good story. Avoiding problems is tricky.

In the end, Pat knows something that James doesn’t: it is not enough to be good at what you do. It’s deeper. Performance is elusive and can be shaped.  To succeed in organizations, you have to make people feel good about what you’re doing and that often means you have to make them feel good about themselves.

Shane Parrish feeds your brain at Farnam Street, a site that helps readers master the best of what other people have already figured out. Join over 40,000 other smart subscribers and sign up for brain food, his weekly digest of cross-disciplinary awesomeness.

Follow Shane Parrish via RSS.