The president of a large financial services company went on a fact-finding tour of regional offices. When he got to Illinois, the local management carefully handpicked several veterans and a couple of promising new recruits to attend the fact-finding dinner. The new recruits were the most gung-ho in the office. The veterans could be counted on to behave with discretion; they understood company protocol. Jim Aronson, the most knowledgeable, if not the most cynical, veteran in the division was deliberately not invited. Jim understood his value to the company, and wasn’t interested in being promoted. No telling what he might say to the president.
But Aronson being Aronson, before the dinner he sought out one of the new recruits and took her aside. Shelly Channing was young, ambitious, and intelligent. She was a sincere, dedicated, hardworking Pollyanna, a likeable lady in her late 20s. She wanted to be a manager, and everyone knew that in time she would be.
Shelly had been around just long enough to realize that Aronson was absolutely right when he said that the regional offices had one problem that overwhelmed all the rest. That problem was the yearly evaluation program that based pay increases on activity rather than genuine achievement. Overspending, empire building, procedures for the sake of procedures, and reports for the sake of reports were rewarded at the expense of true productivity.
“Then there’s the hard feelings these things generate,” Aronson added. “All these vague personality issues: not a team player; lacking in loyalty; no initiative. You’ve seen them. A lot of times, they’re more accusations than assessments — a chance for management to get even with those they don’t like. How do they measure that stuff? How can anybody refute it? How can you work on improvement if your SOB manager still doesn’t like you next year?”
Shelly nodded. Aronson even armed her with an article that he’d clipped from an old magazine. Among other things, it mentioned a study showing that performance evaluations were usually followed by a drop in performance for upwards of three months.
“Around here it’s longer than three months,” he insisted. “Around here it probably lasts right up until it’s time for the next evaluation. This company is 15 years behind the times. They need to be focusing on behaviors — productive behaviors — not personalities. Met 83 percent of on-time goals; reduced consulting costs by 11 percent. That’s something I can do something about. What they’re measuring now is who’s doing the most busywork and how well they suck up. No wonder we lose so many of our best people.”
So Shelly was ready that evening, and a bit nervous. At the lead table on a dais sat the president, along with the regional vice president and all the local management. The invitees were at floor level at two smaller tables.
After the dinner, the president stood up. “As you know,” he said, “We’re here tonight because I want — I need — your frank and open feedback. Your comments, your suggestions and, yes, if it’s warranted, your criticism. This, of course, is a safe environment. A completely safe environment. You have my word on that. You can say anything you feel has to be said without fear of retribution.” He smiled. “No matter how many of your bosses might be sitting up here beside me.”
Everyone laughed. Shelly laughed. But unfortunately, she didn’t catch the edge of nervousness in the other laughter.
Then, one by one, all the invitees had their chance to get up and say their piece. About how wonderful it was to have a president who cared enough to come out and ask for their opinion. About how this kind of openness was what separated this company from the competition and made it such a fantastic place to work and build a career. About how this kind of thinking was why the company was a true industry leader.
No one mentioned the company’s industry-leading turnover rate or why it trailed the industry in virtually every other major benchmark. The problems that were mentioned were small, usually process-related. The president would assign either the regional VP or the division manager to “check into the situation and see if we can improve on our systems and procedures.” No one anywhere took any notes on these “assignments.” No one even recorded that they’d been made.
Shelly’s turn came near the end. She stood up. Respectfully, she thanked the president for coming. Then she said, “The problem I’m concerned with is a little more basic.” She didn’t notice the sudden concern on the face of her immediate boss at the lead table. “Have we looked into whether our current evaluation and compensation system is rewarding the wrong type of behavior?”
Nobody actually gasped out loud — but the psychic gasp was nearly loud enough to be heard. To an outsider, the question might seem harmless, but every single person at that dinner — everyone but Shelly — knew just how verboten the topic was. Six years previously, before his promotion, the president had been the prime mover behind the development of the standardized system she was questioning. It had been his crowning achievement.
“We’ve looked at all types of compensation strategies,” the president said coolly and dismissively. “We know what the competition is doing. After studying all the alternatives, I think I can safely say that we’ve got one of the finest compensation systems in the industry.”
He pointed to the man seated beside Shelly. “Next.”
“But, sir,” Shelly insisted, compounding her mistake exponentially. “It’s everybody’s major gripe — how unfair the assessments are. And how counterproductive. Instead of rewarding people for cultivating more beans and cultivating them as efficiently as possible, we reward those who find more and more elaborate ways of bean counting and recounting.”
This last was a virtual Aronson quote, and all the local managers knew it. But Aronson was untouchable.
“Everybody’s major gripe?” The president’s voice was cold. “Then why didn’t anyone else here even mention it? Not one single person. Anybody else here agree with Ms. — Ms., what was your name?”
“Channing, sir,” she said, tensely. “Shelly Channing.”
“Anybody else agree with Ms. Channing here?” His tone made it plain that nobody in that room could possibly agree with such an absurd proposition. Not surprisingly, nobody did. “But I think I see your problem, Ms. Channing. Your problem is that you’re in the wrong line of work. We aren’t even in the bean business.”
He smiled. Everyone else laughed nervously, and he called on the next invitee.
Without knowing it, Shelly Channing had just destroyed her chances of ever being promoted to management within that company. Within six months, she was gone.
And afterward, when local management told the story, it was always as an object lesson on how not to behave in front of upper management, and on the danger of not properly selecting and briefing your people before such a meeting. The next time a V.I.P. came to town, the regional vice president personally instructed the local managers that this type of incident was not to be allowed to happen again.
In other words, they were to make sure that, in their fact-finding, upper management would find no embarrassing facts they didn’t want to find.
So it didn’t happen again. But it should have. It should have happened in every meeting — until the company realized and acknowledged it had a problem. Even if, for some reason, there really was nothing to be done about the problem. At least properly acknowledging the problem would give the company a chance to explain why there was nothing to be done.
Adapted from Filling the Glass: The Skeptic’s Guide to Positive Thinking in Business by Barry Maher (Dearborn 2001).
This article originally appeared at BarryMaher.com. Republished here courtesy of Barry Maher.