A few weeks into my first job after college, a handful of us were invited by my boss to scout locations for an upcoming event for an important group of clients. As she described her vision for the selected spot on the scenic island and discussed the potential of it, my boss brushed and swatted at her pant legs in a failed attempt to appear in complete control of the moment. My colleagues exchanged awkward glances, but remained timidly silent – classic Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome. Apparently I was the only idiot to see the ants.
“Hey, Roberta,” I called out. “You’re standing on an anthill.”
She glared at me as she stepped off of the anthill, without missing a beat in describing her vision and how perfect the spot was. Now, I’m pretty sure Roberta did not deliberately step onto that anthill. Once aware, she downplayed it. Perhaps fearful that her status would be somehow diminished by acknowledging and reacting too quickly to her misstep. Whatever the psychology, she was bitten unnecessarily – and my invitation to the event mysteriously disappeared.
I have since witnessed too many metaphoric anthills to count: unnoticed or ignored inefficiencies that carry off hundreds of times their own weight in time, profits, and employee morale. And I think to myself ‘forget’ you, Roberta – just before I speak up.
An unfortunate fact of human nature is that we often avoid action to change our condition even in the face of evidence that change would improve our situation. The fear of loss of face or control is a powerful inhibitor of action to change our condition. There are also institutional inhibitors of change. It is a widespread misconception that in business, sins of commission (doing something) are punished more severely than sins of omission (doing nothing). Maybe you’ve heard or said, ‘This is how we’ve always done things.’ If the way you’ve always done things (status quo) relies on spreadsheets, information silos and email, ask yourself this: Would I choose the status quo, if it were not the status quo?