A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
November 9th, 2012 by William

Fetch Me Another Rock

My last post talked about meetings and the cowboys who make them one of the most dreaded events in business. Attending a meeting that you know will accomplish nothing makes the experience all the more demotivating, however the most dreadful aspect of attending a meeting is the threat that you may be singled out to perform some useless task only because someone else deems it a priority. When this happens you’ve fallen victim to the infamous “Action Item Syndrome.”

From my experience “action items” are another paralyzing problem for business. The propensity to have to assign action items as a result of every meeting or conversation, no matter how meaningless the subject matter, is a typical ploy of micromanaging management that has no real strategy for how to build the business. This is the “ready-fire-aim” way to exercise command and control superiority over everyone because making the student body veer left or right at their whim is one of their favorite games and makes them feel powerful.

When faced with an action item, you must ask yourself this: Does this action do anything to build the business? If not, then it’s either firefighting, or worse it’s just a plain old ineffective use of time that can be better spent on something that builds the business and increases customer satisfaction. Obviously, if you really have a fire, firefighting is OK, but most often action items are doled out to address issues that are fabricated by people who thrive on the disruption they inflict. This is the “Chicken Little Syndrome’ in which the sky is always falling. It can be found in most sociopathic management teams, because they’re not happy unless the organization is mired down in chasing fabricated issues or problems. They thrive on the high drama that one crisis after another provides.

In my book, Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw, I address this problem; a result of the universal “fear of surprises” that grips most management teams. Most managers don’t handle surprises very well, so their natural inclination is to constantly be on the offensive to try and fix problems before they happen. This explains why there’s such a fixation on being “proactive.” However, the fact is this mentality actually “creates” problems to solve, i.e., it fuels the action item syndrome. Things that really aren’t problems get blown out of proportion and addressing them becomes the sole purpose of the workforce to the exclusion of more important (business building) endeavors.

Time is the most valuable asset for any organization, yet most waste it with actions that don’t do anything to build the business or enhance customer satisfaction. This is exacerbated by the fact that most action items are split-second in creation thus having little methodical thinking behind their creation. They are knee-jerk reactions to some stimulus that more often than not is meaningless in the grand scheme of the business. Because of this, most action items that are not clearly defined, thus can only lead to a mediocre job of executing on them. This further makes the time wasted on them more deplorable.

Another aspect of this syndrome is that action items beget more action items. No matter how thorough you complete an action item it will lead to follow-on actions. Also, the more action items you successfully survive the more you’ll be seen as the go to person for these useless goat ropes.

However, don’t miss the action item due date, because if you do, you obviously don’t have a “sense of urgency.” Action items are another way that management can hold people accountable, albeit in a perverted sense of the term. Remember “accountability” is just another word for blamestorming. In this context, the successful completion of an action item is how management measures whether people are performing their jobs, i.e., are held accountable. Forget real job duties, as long as an action item has been completed on time, that’s all that matters.

The executive, or manager, who’s fixated on dishing out action items, truly believes that this management style is contributing to making the organization more efficient. However, efficiency shouldn’t be the prime directive. Effectiveness, e.g. customer satisfaction, is the key to organizational success and action items are the antithesis of effectiveness.

If assigned an action item you should first ask yourself; is this action worthy of my time and does it contribute to the bottom line? If not then the action is not effective, despite how efficient you may be in completing the action on time. Most management teams mistake their ready-fire-aim approach as being efficient, when in fact they should be trying to be effective. Unfortunately, none truly grasp the difference between efficiency and effectiveness or realize that there’s an opportunity cost to tying up their staff chasing useless action items.


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