The Identified Losers: Reality or Perception?

by Tom Heuerman, Ph.D.
with Diane Olson, Ph.D.

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While in east Africa on a photo safari in 1994, I visited Maasai villages in Kenya and Tanzania. The Maasai are a tall and aristocratic pastoral people who live in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. Approximately 300,000 to 400,000 Maasai live a seminomadic way of life as they follow the seasons in search of grass and water for their cattle herds. I saw how their centuries-old way of life was being changed.

Beautiful, barefoot, and bashful Maasai children skipped school to beg from tourists on the dirt roads. Proud, bare-chested, spear-carrying Maasai warriors, with their ears stretched and adorned with colorful earrings, charged $10 a person and danced for tourists. Noble elders sat cross-legged and watched in sorrow. Young Maasai men, seduced by false promises of prosperity, migrated to Nairobi where the unemployment rate is estimated at 40%.

I felt sorry for the Maasai and frustrated by the knowledge I could do nothing to stop what would happen to them. I saw the beginning of Industrialization (jobs, cities, factories, materialism, fragmentation of thinking) destroying the centuries-old culture of the proud Maasai people. I believe exposure to modern civilization will destroy their social system, their values will deteriorate, and the meaning of their lives will be lost. The Maasai are not alone. Many indigenous cultures are extinct and approximately 3,000 of the worlds 6,000 remaining cultures approach extinction. Those cultures that remain are being homogenized by a system of thought that believes the universe is a hostile place; the world a gigantic, competitive battleground. The dominant culture (that crosses many national boundaries) separates itself from nature and strives mightily to dominate other cultures and the natural world through excessive and mindless competition. I am angry that the diversity and wisdom of indigenous people (like the Maasai) are being destroyed by more powerful people addicted to selfishly devouring the earth.

Competition so permeates organizational life that we are mostly unaware of the mindless winning and losing, and the destructive impact all of this has on people. Our language is filled with words like war, win, lose, heroes, battle, tactics, strategy, warriors, do or die, and big guns. Perhaps the greatest fear executives have is of "losing."

As a competitive manager, I tried constantly to improve the performance of people rated in the bottom ten-percent of the organization. I tried threats, bribes, persuasion. I tried coaching. I suspended some people and fired others. No matter what I did, the bottom ten percent remained the bottom ten percent. They were the identified losers of the enterprise. Superior performance was valued and rewarded because we wanted an organization of "super-stars."

Our perception of the identified losers began to change as the organization I led began a transformation process (driven by marketplace competitive needs). We had a shift of mind and decided that we had to cooperate internally if we were to reap the envisioned benefits of teamwork. We believed that cooperation, a hallmark of life, would bring people together in pursuit of a grand goal and would result in growth that transcended what came before. We realized suddenly that when we shifted from competitive relationships (people pitted against one another) to cooperative relationships (people working together) a change occurred in how we perceived and valued differences that people brought to the workplace.

As 30 self-managed teams formed, we noticed something unexpected. The identified losers of the organization were doing better. Some managers were always in trouble because they couldn't keep up with their work. Whenever I discussed them with their supervisors, they told me these managers were good people always going out of their way to help others. They helped other employees so much they could not finish their own work. These employees, however, did great on teams. Those who helped others were suddenly valued highly, and they were no longer losers. Thoughts of other employees always brought a smile. They were funny. We laughed at their antics, at stories about them, and with them. We suggested frequently that they could improve their performance by being more serious. When we changed to teams it was different: a sense of humor helped during difficult change. Fun was necessary for creativity. The perceived losers had not changed; our perception of them changed.

As the teams developed, people worked together to overcome their shortcomings and developed a sense of community where everyone led when their unique talents were needed. They were accountable to one another; competing with inspiring goals and past performance. Doing well replaced defeating others. This is the true meaning of diversity: Each person is different and brings a unique life-experience, world view, ideas, hopes, and dreams to the workplace. A truly diverse workplace honors, accepts, and learns from the differences of each person and recognizes that this diversity gives the organization the strength and talents to meet unknown challenges.

In a competitive workplace, everyone tried to get better at being the same. We were all conformists. In a cooperative workplace, people were authentic; their differences contributed to the success of the whole. Committed to our shared vision, values, and purpose, we were joined and challenged by our differences-not separated by them. We made room for everyone. We were unique individuals and a community. The superstars continued to be rewarded for their unique contributions, but our perception of contribution broadened and multiple attributes were valued and rewarded-not just superior performance. Everyone had a valuable role. We realized that the whole could be sustainable only when we honored the diversity of each member. Cooperation moved us toward wholeness, creativity, flexibility, relationship, and "both/and" thinking just as competition with one another moved us toward rigidity, isolation, fragmentation, and "either/or" thinking. Cooperation honors diversity and is sustainable; competition drives conformity and is not sustainable. Cooperation taught us that there is enough for everyone; competition taught us scarcity.

Organizational results were significant: millions in savings, improvements of 50% or more in all measures of customer service, and no union grievances for five years. The world's identified losers, whether cultures like the Maasai or individuals like the bottom 10% in organizations, are not deficient at all. Instead they are locked into a mindless contest-forgotten and marginalized-that can have only one winner. Their potential is lost to the world and organizations. With so much losing, even the so-called winners eventually become losers. Life's natural process is not about domination and scarcity; it is about community and abundance.

Recommended Reading: Ishmael, The Story of B, and My Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.

06/01/98

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Tom Heuerman, Ph.D. and Diane Olson, Ph.D. are organizational consultants in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Phone 612-931-3909; Fax 612-931-3002

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