What is the root cause of failure? Businesses fail for many reasons some internal and some external. Experts will tell you about the many ways to pursue success and avoid failure. Patrick Lencioni, Jim Collins, and Verne Harnish each have amazing business minds, are top thought leaders and are people I admire and whose lessons I use every day.
But even as we develop a great team, create a flywheel and put effective systems in place, what is missing? There is something going on in the minds of everyone in the company from the people on the production floor through the C-Suite that has influenced their lives from a young age and became even more dominant when they entered the workforce because they need to earn a living so they can put food on the table, clothes on the backs of their children, put them thru college and save for retirement. And those are just the basics.
For most of us, there are two constant struggles in our minds that hold us back, keep great businesses from being even greater and bad businesses from surviving.
First is the avoidance of failure. No matter how great things are going in your company, you and your employees will always be striving to avoid failure. Why? Because failure makes you look bad, can hurt your career and potentially ruin the company. This avoidance of failure becomes self-limiting, stifles creativeness and can sow dysfunction because most people will do anything not to be seen as the cause of a problem and deflect it onto someone else if it means protecting their ego and their job.
Second is the pursuit of success. We want to climb the corporate ladder, we want that bonus, we want to look good among our peers, we want our boss to praise us, we want, we want, we want. A business is made up of individual contributors and it is impossible for everyone to get an MVP trophy. This leads again, to self-serving decisions and dysfunction.
Have you ever been in bed with your wheels spinning, thinking about work? That is your mind working to avoid failure and pursue success so you don’t look bad.
This pursuit of success and avoidance of failure is human nature. We are naturally competitive and all have fight or flight triggers. This will never go away. However, as leaders, if we can create an environment of recognition where the relentless pursuit of success and avoidance of failure breeds unhappiness, dysfunction and drama, we will have a much better chance of having a company that lives up to is mission, purpose and values…while making money.
I would like to say that I came to this through years of research but I actually stole the idea, or, as they say in the knockoff business, “copied with pride”, found that it had an application in business and then I realized that I have lived it throughout my career.
This idea is based in Buddhism. Through my own personal journey of avoidance & pursuit, I started reading about Buddhism in the book called When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. In the book I found the following concept about the cause of suffering. It can be summed up by the diagram below:
Buddhism suggests that there is a better way, The Middle Way or The Middle Path…The Path of the Warrior. On this path, like the warrior, we don’t avoid and pursue. We accept that we will encounter these successes and failures and we experience & deal with them AS THEY COME, we OWN them and move on.
As I wrote above, at the end of the day, all people in an organization have to feed their family, pay bills and save for retirement. They also reach for “Self Actualization” as Abraham Maslow wrote in his paper A Theory of Human Motivation. If this suffering can be minimized, Self Actualization becomes more attainable.
Knowing this, replace the words in the diagram above with words describing situations present every day in business:
Why does Buddhism also refer to this as the Path of the Warrior? My interpretation is because a warrior cannot contemplate victory or defeat in battle because doing so will surely lead to their death. For them, there is no time during battle for worrying about these things when the objectives are victory and survival. They are not interested in whether or not they will be promoted or demoted, and whether or not they will look good to their commander or peers.
This pursuit and avoidance is not supposed to be overt in business because business is supposed to be about teamwork and win-wins. The problem with this is that we are wired for pursuit and avoidance. How effective and how rock solid can your cultural foundation be when you and your employees, in the back of your minds, spend every day in this mode? Have you ever made a decision based on self-preservation or one that will allow you to avoid looking bad? Have you ever deflected a question from your boss or answered one in a vague way. If so, that is your mind avoiding looking bad.
Because of the suffering brought on by this pursuit and avoidance, what mistakes are being made, what dysfunctional current is flowing below the foundation, what turnover are you experiencing and how is all of this impacting everyone’s well being, your customer’s satisfaction, your bottom line and your ability to not just achieve but surpass your strategic objectives?
While we are wired this way, leadership can create an environment that minimizes its impact. One of the most important aspects of this environment is that it is one in which people are encouraged to own their mistakes, talk about what they learned from them and can be comfortable doing so because their boss supports them. When you run your next management meeting, try having your team go around the room and talk about a mistake they made in the business recently that they would not normally talk about in a public setting, start with yourself and you will see the levity in brings to that meeting.
Below is one of my favorite images that illustrate this concept of The Middle Path.
Here’s a question for you: Where does your mind spend its time in this photo? What about the minds of your employees?