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The Worst Lies Are the Lies We Tell Ourselves

We all do it. Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, is credited with the quote, “The worst lies are the lies that we tell ourselves.”

Bach argued that we do this out of fear: fear of failure or fear of loss. These fears, in and of themselves, are not necessarily bad. For example, when they keep us from driving at 100 miles per hour or jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.

However, the lies we tell ourselves solely to help us feel OK about maintaining the status quo, not rocking the boat, or avoiding discomfort can be self-destructive. In this context they simply allow us to succumb to inertia – “the tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged.”

I have seen this at work with many privately held business owners, as they avoid dealing with weak performers on their leadership teams. They are thinking, “I really need to deal with Joe, he’s just not getting the job done,” or, “Joe is getting the job done, but his behavior is destroying the culture I want.”

But what they are secretly telling themselves is…

…”Joe has a young family and needs this job” …”Joe has been very loyal and firing him will be more painful than keeping him” …”The results aren’t really that bad and will probably get better if I just wait and see”

While these thoughts may be laudable, they’re simply allowing inertia to run the business, to maintain the status quo, and to avoid the actions that the owner, the business, and, frankly, the weak performer desperately need.

The reality is this failure to act has significant negative consequences including:

  • Sleepless nights for the owner (the middle of the night is when lying to oneself is most difficult);

  • Loss of credibility of the owner in the eyes of the entire organization (everyone knows Joe is dragging the company down and causing more work and smaller bonuses for them and they are wondering if leadership is ever going to wake up and smell the coffee);

  • Extreme discomfort for Joe. (Joe knows he’s not getting the job done and he doesn’t know, or chooses not to take, the steps necessary to improve or to move on to a job that fits him better. And he’s perpetually plagued, wondering when the axe will fall).

The lack of decisive action with under-performers is often rationalized as being more humane.

I would argue, as the late Jack Welch of GE did, that it is exactly the opposite. Putting it off only delays the inevitable and the longer it goes on the more difficult re-employment becomes for Joe, and the deeper the hole for the business.

What lies are you telling yourself? Talking with someone outside the business and less emotionally involved can often bring clarity to the situation and help you move forward.

Is inertia running (or ruining) your business?


Greg Mickelson is a Principal of Standish Executive Search, a New England-based firm that advises business owners, executives and boards who are positioning their companies for accelerated growth, change or succession.

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