The Plague of Executive Unproductivity
We’ve all experienced working with unproductive coworkers who make our lives miserable because they do little more than muck about and make messes for the rest of us to clean up. If it’s bad, they usually get away with it for awhile until enough people catch on and call them out on it. From an employee engagement perspective, this person can be poisoning the work habits of others for an average of 18 months before they are called out and their direct effects are halted. Still, the ongoing effects of their unproductivity may last much longer, often embodied in others within the organization who were infected. And while this is awful when it happens at the line level or non-management level of the organization, it can be devastating when it hits the Executive Suite.
Lack of productivity in the E-suite can happen for several reasons: stagnancy in a long time employee who lacks motivation while having long term tenure and significant organizational influence (let’s call this exec “the deadwood”), an executive who relied heavily on key staff and when those employees who were really doing the work left the organization, the executive could no longer perform to standards (“the hide-behind exec”), or an untested, looks-good-on-paper, outside “friendly” executive is asked to fill in a key position for an interim period, but instead of moving on or assisting in finding a more qualified person, they manage to hang on to the position while covering up their inability to do critical parts of the job (“the interim-loper”), or perhaps it is the Peter Principle at work in which managers are promoted to their level of incompetence and there they remain (“peter performers”). Whatever the reason, let’s refer to non-productive executives collectively as NPE’s.
A quick caveat here: this article does not assume malice on the part of an NPE to poison the organization. Not all NPE’s are devious or purposely out to ride the coat tails of the organization for their own benefit for as long as they can. There are many NPE’s that are in over their heads and may not be sure how to ask for help, and they may be employing some of these poisonous tactics in an effort to survive or get their head above water. Motive or not, when there is poison in the bloodstream of the organization it needs to be eradicated, and the first step is knowing how to recognize whether your organization is being poisoned.
The reasons for how an executive can remain in their job while being unproductive may vary, but the effects on the organization do not. Effects of an NPE can be seen in lagging sales, ongoing operations inefficiencies, confusion around projects and timeframes, erosion of customers due to waning confidence in the company and its leadership, internal erosion of confidence, tension in the company culture and potential loss of internal talent, and loss of productivity throughout the executive’s span of control. These effects will be seen in the bottom line and cost the company real dollars, but may not be immediately attributable to the NPE. And this is why non-performance at the E-level is like a poison–it can kill and leave no trace–unless you are looking for it.
Is Your Organization Being Poisoned?
So, how does a company begin to recognize the signs of executive non-performance? There are several ways that non-performers at the highest levels of the organization can mask their ineffectiveness. Here is a short list of five, and if an NPE is avoiding work, accountability and detection, they are probably employing all five, which are sure to have an ill effect on the organization. Quickly, these are: Divert, Confuse, Flatter, Relate and Piddle. Let’s address each poison in turn.
1. Poison: Divert
Reason to Use: Avoid direct accountability for lack of progress/performance
How it is Administered: Consistently, by shifting the focus away from NPE’s non-performance to a different pressing issue
Why it is Effective: Concern about other issues looks legitimate, timely and like it comes from a tuned-in manager.
Symptoms to Look For: An executive who constantly lacks clear and timely progress toward deliverables, lacks transparency in activities and accountability for delayed deliverables
When there are questions about their projects, lagging deliverables or other performance concerns, NPE’s needing to avoid accountability will often divert attention from their lack of performance to other issues within the company that they know need to be addressed. It’s the organizational version of “Hey! Look over there!” This tactic is simple, but effective at turning the heat onto another person or organizational fire, especially if the executive has been “collecting” issues or things that need to be addressed for exactly these moments. Here’s how this poison might be administered in an executive meeting:
CEO: “So, where are we on finishing the operational plan for next year that was due two weeks ago?”
NPE: “Well, I’ve had a hard time getting information from the IT department, since they are having issues with the architecture for the new product that the sales team has been selling but haven’t been able to deliver to customers.”
CEO: “Why is this the first I’m hearing about architecture issues, CTO?”
CTO: “Well, it’s not. Although we’ve been…”
And just like that, the NPE is off the hook. If they can keep dodging for the rest of the meeting, the NPE will have successfully dodged being accountable to their peers for their lack of performance until the next meeting.
Diversions are often other fires within the organization and an NPE often knows which execs care about which issues (i.e. the CEO caring about new product rollouts and sales), so will divert with focused relevancy. Diversions work because by bringing up other fires, they allow the NPE to look like they really care about the issues and want to get them resolved, all the while avoiding accountability for the fires of their own that they are not addressing.
How do you know if you are being poisoned by diversion? Examine the status and accountability record of your executives. Do you have an executive whose work progress is consistently hard to track or seems tied to the (lack of) progress of others in the organization? The net result of an NPE using this poison is that the status of projects and deliverables of their projects are often unclear. It will be consistently difficult to get straight answers on progress and there will often be finger pointing and a lack of personal accountability for their lagging progress.
2. Poison: Confuse
Reason to Use: Delay/Buy time through seemingly “legitimate” means
How it is Administered: Sprinkled throughout an NPE’s days, projects and interactions
Why it is Effective: Confusion can be a natural, unintentional part of diverse and complex working environments and some level of confusion is unavoidable and may even be expected. Thus, when confusion is used intentionally it is often undetectable.
Symptoms to Look For: Ongoing lack of clarity around an executive’s work, schedule and use of resources. Minor delays at first, although the delays can become costly if they result in lost customers, contacts, external confidence
Confusion is a brilliant ploy on the part of an NPE to avoid detection. Confusion works well when there are few accountability mechanisms in place to track progress on projects or where time is being spent. Since execs are often hired because they are professionals, their time and use of resources are often not addressed or tracked until or unless there are massive failings in projects, cost containment or bottom line performance.
NPE’s can hide behind a myriad of confusion excuses, such as:
- lack of email response from others (“I never heard back from those important investors” usually means they never connected with them to begin with)
- no project management system or managing by email, which can get lost (“I didn’t get the email” or “my email is such a mess I can’t find the thread to our project” or “I thought so and so was handling that piece of the project?” usually means that they’ve done nothing related to their pieces of the project),
- attending meetings but not writing anything down (“I never got the meeting notes. Wasn’t so and so taking notes they were going to pass along to us? I don’t recall our next steps.” usually means they are just not following through after meetings–wasting everyone’s time),
- lost email (“I didn’t get your message” hampers communication and thwarts progress)
- flight delays and changes in schedule (“there was bad weather and we had to change the flight and then all the meetings had to be pushed back a day or two” also causes delays and slows progress).
These just outline a few of the “confusion variables” that an NPE can employ, their main goal being to delay in order to buy themselves more time.
The reason this poison is effective is that it can go virtually undetected. Confusion looks legitimate because these are variables that can be somewhat outside of the NPE’s control. While an effective, highly productive executive will use a moment of confusion to clarify and move forward on a project with greater alignment and closer communication, an NPE will use confusion to veil their unproductivity and disorganization and create delays.
How do you know you are being administered a dose of confusion poison? Examine the quantity of “confusion” events (lost email, lack of responses and follow up, constant changes in scheduled meetings or deliverables). If high, then you have confusion poison in your organizational bloodstream. If an exec has these or other reasons for constant delays and restarts, take a closer look at their performance…and expect to find insufficiencies in their performance.
3. Poison: Flatter
Reason to Use: Shift attention away from direct questions regarding lack of progress around projects/work
How it is Administered: Often in response to criticism or direct questioning from another executive
Why it is Effective: It looks like the NPE is handling a critical moment professionally by being positive when they are actually avoiding accountability by changing the subject and focus of the discussion; very effective when male/female interaction
Symptoms to Look For: Executive who consistently dodges direct questions around deliverables and progress, whether in meetings or one-on-one
We’ve all heard the phrase “flattery will get you everywhere”. Indeed, flattery makes us feel good about ourselves, especially because it seems genuine. NPE’s know that the quickest way to get the attention off of themselves is to put the attention on something or someone else. While diversion is one way of doing this, the other is flattery. The difference is tone and subject. Diversion usually means taking a moment of criticism and redirecting the focus to a different problem in the organization (negative tone/organizational subject), while flattery takes a moment of criticism and redirects the focus on a positive, personal trait of the personal making the criticism (positive tone/personal subject).
The reason flattery works well for NPE’s is because they are executives themselves and know that executives have egos that like to be stroked. Executives like their contributions to be recognized. They like for others to see how they are making a difference in the organization. Additionally, since executives are often competitive, when one executive comments on how great a system, plan, process, or product another executive put into place is, the executive being flattered is apt to believe the flattery since it comes from someone who might be considered a “friendly competitor” with perhaps little to gain by the flattery. It also tends to diffuse a tense moment with a spark of positive energy, which can bring a subtle sense of relief.
Here’s how this poison might be administered in a one-on-one meeting:
CEO: “I really need you to finish the slide deck for our investor meeting and I’ve been waiting for it for months. What’s the delay?”
NPE: “You’re right. I’ve been working on it for months and each time I think I’ve got it, I just scrap it and start over. You have such a finesse about how you put together the decks we use…and your strategy is rock solid. Perhaps you could forward me a template of the kinds of things you would like me to use?”
CEO: “We do need to make sure we send the right message…so if you are unsure of the message…”
NPE: “I just want to be aligned with your vision…”
CEO: “Of course. Sure. I can send over an outline for you to use…”
And in a flash of flattery, the NPE has transferred their work to the CEO! Even after months of waiting for it, the NPE diffused the CEO’s frustration through flattery.
A keen NPE will know the “flattery points” of the other execs on their team: what they are most proud of or what they like to be complimented on or how they like to work. In the example above, the flattery is very effective with a CEO who is mentor/team oriented and strives hard for alignment of vision. The NPE who is people savvy will often use this poison. It is also effective when used between male/female execs (i.e. a female NPE flattering a male exec).
How do you know if you are being poisoned with flattery? Once again, it is about the number of incidents in which this type of situation occurs. Is this a behavior that is a pattern with an executive? Do they often interject a flattering shift in the conversation when directly questioned? And do they, perhaps, combine this behavior with other poisonous behaviors discussed? If so, it will probably indicate a desire to shift attention away from their (lack of ) progress/performance.
4. Poison: Relate
Reason to Use: Desperation; When NPE’s professional value to the organization is being questioned or position seems tenable. Reminds other execs of NPE’s personal connections and influence
How it is Administered: Usually one on one, in a friendly conversation/text/email prior to or following a discussion regarding the NPE’s progress or performance
Why it is Effective: This poison is most effective if the NPE is well connected or has personal relationships to other execs/customers. The NPE subtly “threatens” the loss of their connections or subtly “reminds” others of their influence with people of importance.
Symptoms to Look For: Executive who drops names of personal contacts or bring them up in conversation when there has been a conversation about their progress or performance.
This is such a subtle poison to detect, which is why it is so very effective at masking the lack of productivity for an NPE who wants to continue in their organizational position. With this poison, an NPE will often name drop or discuss the events and goings-on of influential people when they feel their role/position is being called into question. It might go something like this:
(Text Messages between NPE and their Boss on a weekend)
CEO: Looking for financials you were sending over today. Expected them Friday. Need them right away.
NPE: Yes, working on them with virtual team. Should have soon.
NPE: Had dinner with Board member at large tech company last night, interested in what we are doing. Thought could introduce you.
CEO: Would be great. Thanks.
NPE: We were discussing your BBQ techniques – very interested in your process! You two will hit it off!
In this scenario, the NPE switches the focus of the conversation away from their late deliverable to their importance to the organization in terms of their connections and influence which the NPE knows is valuable to the Boss. In addition, the NPE intimates their personal relationship to the Boss, reminding the Boss of how well they know each other. Taking punitive actions against employees where there is a personal relationship is much harder for most managers than when the relationship is strictly business. An NPE with personal connections will often use personal relationships to their advantage not only to avoid accountability, but also to get what they need from others within the organization. NPE’s will often choose personal venues for meetings and create scenarios in which other executives feel “indebted” to the NPE, thus making the Boss or other execs less likely to call the NPE out on their lack of progress/productivity.
How do you know if you are a victim of this organizational poison? If you have an executive who is especially well connected and/or peddles in influence AND they seem to discuss their influence and connections or seem especially keen to focus on your personal relationship around times when they are late with deliverables or lagging in progress, then you may have “relate poisoning”
5. Poison: Piddle
Reason to Use: It looks like the NPE is getting something done, the executive version of “look busy”
How it is Administered: In spurts, when under scrutiny over progress and productivity on important projects
Why it is Effective: This poison is the least effective for thwarting true skepticism over lack of progress/performance, but provides evidence of ability to perform and thus reduces concerns over ability and may alleviate the sense that perhaps the NPE should be replaced.
Symptoms to Look For: An executive that seems to have problems prioritizing their work, focusing on the less important projects over the truly critical ones.
There is an old illustration of “piddling” often used in management to underline how managers are expected to prioritize their work. It goes something like this:
One day an old professor of the School of Public Management in France, was invited to lecture on the topic of “Efficient Time Management” in front of a group of 15 executive managers representing the largest, most successful companies in America. The lecture was one in a series of 5 lectures conducted in one day, and the old professor was given 1 hour to lecture. Standing in front of this group of elite managers, who were willing to write down every word that would come out of the famous professor’s mouth, the professor slowly met eyes with each manager, one by one, and finally said, “we are going to conduct an experiment”.
From under the table that stood between the professor and the listeners, the professor pulled out a big glass jar and gently placed it in front of him. Next, he pulled out from under the table a bag of stones, each the size of a tennis ball, and placed the stones one by one in the jar. He did so until there was no room to add another stone in the jar. Lifting his gaze to the managers, the professor asked, “Is the jar full?” The managers replied, “Yes”. The professor paused for a moment, and replied, “Really?”
Once again, he reached under the table and pulled out a bag full of pebbles. Carefully, the professor poured the pebbles in and slightly rattled the jar, allowing the pebbles to slip through the larger stones, until they settled at the bottom. Again, the professor lifted his gaze to his audience and asked, “Is the jar full?” At this point, the managers began to understand his intentions. One replied, “Apparently not!” “Correct,” replied the old professor, now pulling out a bag of sand from under the table. Cautiously, the professor poured the sand into the jar. The sand filled up the spaces between the stones and the pebbles. Yet again, the professor asked, “Is the jar full?” Without hesitation, the entire group of students replied in unison, “NO!” “Correct,” replied the professor. As was expected by the students, the professor reached for the pitcher of water that was on the table, and poured water in the jar until it was absolutely full.
The professor now lifted his gaze once again and asked, “What great truth can we surmise from this experiment?” With his thoughts on the lecture topic, one manager quickly replied, “We learn that as full as our schedules may appear, if we only increase our effort, it is always possible to add more meetings and tasks.” “No,” replied the professor. “The great truth that we can conclude from this experiment is: If we don’t put all the larger stones in the jar first, we will never be able to fit all of them later.“
The story illustrates the problem with “piddling”, or prioritizing the smaller, less important tasks (pebbles and sand) over the more critical ones (the stones). NPE’s will often focus on smaller, less critical work, projects that can be done will a relative amount of success relatively quickly and perhaps with less effort than the larger, more complex work they need to do.
The reason piddling is considered a poison to the organization is that it also has slow, and subtle but very deleterious effects. NPE’s who piddle are always busy and their days are filled. They seem to be functioning and performing. When asked how things are going, they will often talk about how busy they are. Still, when scrutinized more closely about the larger projects, they will point to the work they were doing on the smaller things. They may call these smaller things “fires” to give them weight. The inability of the exec to prioritize, placing their focus on smaller, less important tasks is a behavior that will set precedents for those within their span of control. Direct reports may also feel that ad hoc time management/prioritization is acceptable. Once this poison is fully running through the organizational bloodstream, it will be very difficult to get critical projects delivered on time.
How will you know if you suffer from piddle poison? Examine the priorities of your execs. Where do they spend their time–and how do they manage the priorities of those that report to them? Be prepared: this scrutiny may put an NPE in a defensive position in which they employ another form of poison such as diversion or confusion.
Like each of these poisons, they only work if there is enough of the poison being administered to the bloodstream, so an organization will need to examine whether there is a consistent and ongoing lack of clarity around the NPE’s progress/performance and then look at whether the above poisonous behaviors are modes of operation for them. The organization will need to examine just how often an NPE employs these methods, either individually or in some combination.
The Antidote to Poison
The best antidote to the administration of subtle and deadly poisons into the organizational bloodstream at the executive level is to identify it, address it and create accountability mechanisms to stop it. It may be necessary for the accountability mechanisms to be placed throughout the organization to ensure others aren’t acting out of these poisonous behaviors learned from an NPE. Here are some quick ideas on how to eradicate poisonous behaviors:
Identify it: Use the descriptions to determine whether your organization suffers from an NPE who is using one of these types of poison.
Address it: The best way to address non performance is to set very clear expectations for how accountability will be handled. This is best done with everyone versus singling one person out. Explain that this will be a change from previous ways of doing business and there is a business need for this change (i.e. project are experiencing unacceptable delays, erosion of customers or loss of confidence, etc). Discuss ways that there could be greater transparency and accountability.
Account for it: Implement the appropriate accountability change at the exec level and track changes in behavior, especially with the NPE you’ve identified. Keep addressing the issue with the team until the appropriate level of change has been made (i.e. reduced diversion, confusion, piddling).
If it makes more sense to address this with the individual NPE, then some tactics for addressing each individual poisonous behavior are below. Keep in mind, it may seem remedial to have to use these tactics with people who are expected to be professional managers. Still, if the team is important to keep in tact and the NPE is trainable, then utilizing these tactics may save the NPE while also saving the organization from further damage.
Antidote: Circle Back: Always circle back to the NPE who has diverted the conversation away from their progress reporting. Make sure the question of progress on the NPE’s projects is answered clearly and sufficiently.
Require Accountability: If the progress reporting answer reveals unacceptable progress, ensure that the NPE takes personal accountability for rectifying the situation. Have them state out loud what they will do and how they will handle it. Do not accept “let me get back to you” or other delay tactics. Be watching for the use of other poisonous behaviors (flattery, confusion).Have them follow up their statements with written communication that is circulated for clarity and accountability purposes.
Antidote: Clear Communication: When there are high incidents of confusion in communication, require the NPE to increase their level of communication to the team. Make sure there is a track record of project goals and sufficient levels of communication that leave no room for delay and confusion.
Hard Deadlines: Create hard deadlines for deliverables, removing the ability to shift travel and meetings and due dates which are the result of confusion.
Require Understanding: The best way to ensure someone understands what they are supposed to do is to make them repeat it. For an NPE that uses confusion, have them write down their understanding of what they are supposed to do and when they are supposed to do it and have them email it to their boss or team members, fostering both clarity and accountability.
Antidote: Circle Back: Again, instead of letting the NPE divert the conversation with personal flattery, perhaps thank them for their kind words, but return to the issue of progress and work. Let them know what is expected and when. Clarify and repeat this point. Have them repeat it back and commit to it.
Antidote: Business First: Ensure that if there is a personal relationship (i.e. friend, relative) with an NPE that the NPE understands that business matters must take precedence over the personal relationship.
Be Debt Free: Don’t let an NPE peddle in personal favors at the expense of their performance in their exec role on the team. Focus on their performance. If the NPE refers to favors or influence, restate what you need and why it is important and how this is a business performance issue. Don’t become indebted to an NPE that would use that debt to shield them from accountability.
Antidote: Prioritize Big Stuff: Make sure everyone understands what their “Big stones” are and how they differ from their “pebbles” in terms of how they prioritize their time.
Track It: Use performance management software to track the progress of large and small projects. Ensure its use is mandatory. If performance management software isn’t possible, have the team track what they did everyday for a week, writing it down and bringing it to the next meeting. This will force transparency around priorities and how the team is spending their time and resources. Discuss each team members log and where they might have maximized their time, gained time to focus on their big stone priorities. Ensure this is a positive, constructive discussion.
While these suggestions won’t solve all the issues of an NPE, it may help you to identify some of the more subtle forms of poison that may be sabotaging your organization’s productivity.
I would love to hear your experiences with poison wielding NPE’s in your organization and how you handled it.