A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
June 17th, 2013 by William

The Wile E. Coyote Syndrome

As the story goes once a hard working young American student went to the guru in India and asked him how long it would take to reach enlightenment. The guru said “it often takes three or four years, but because you are working so hard at it, it will take ten.”

Does this scenario sound familiar? Are there times in your life when you feel, that no matter your effort or how hard you try, you just don’t seem to be getting anything accomplished or that everything takes much longer than planned? Most of us, if truthful, will answer to the affirmative. The sad fact is we may be creating this situation ourselves and not know it.

In his 2012 article “Trying Too Hard to Achieve Goals,” author Gareth Mitchell presents some interesting revelations about this frustrating reality of our lives that we all experience at one time or the other.

Mitchell first cites a quote from Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which reads, “I have yet to find the person, however great or exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than he would ever do under a spirit of criticism.”

Mitchell then asks us, “Have you ever noticed the paradox that you seem to accomplish far more and work with far greater mental clarity when you don’t ‘try’ too hard? That is, when you don’t place too much emphasis on the ‘importance’ of what you’re doing or what you’re trying to achieve. That’s because the sense of pressure [urgency] that often accompanies ‘importance’ expends a great deal of negative mental energy–energy that could have otherwise been put to positive use.

“Remove that pressure and instead of being consumed with stress, urgency and insecurity, you’re filled with enthusiasm, interest, curiosity and creativity–resourceful mental states that are only accessible when you’re relaxed and calm.”

That’s the exact same point, he asserts, that Carnegie was making. If we elicit stress and pressure in someone we will naturally see their abilities and productivity dwindle. But if we help them to feel secure and relaxed through approval we can watch their achievements grow. This is true of how we treat ourselves also. This is exactly why the annual performance review process has such negative effects on an organization–it pressures the employee to believe that the agenda management has cooked up for him or her is the most important thing they should concentrate on–this elicits stress and a false sense of urgency that derails the employee from really concentrating on performing better.

We all intuitively know that the problem with placing an inordinate amount of “urgency and importance” to anything is that it evokes another debilitating state called “the fear of failure.” The fear of failure brings a whole set of insecurities and anxiety that becomes all consuming. Thus we’re functioning under duress and when this happens it should be no surprise that our capacity for achievement seems to diminish exponentially. This same negative effect is at play when we chase things they can never catch.

This is what I call the “Wile E. Coyote Syndrome.” Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner are the duo of cartoon characters from the series of Looney Tunes cartoons. In each cartoon episode Wile E. Coyote uses absurdly complex contraptions and hair-brained plans to try to catch the Road Runner.

Many times we’re just like the poor old coyote–no matter what we do, no matter how ingenious, no matter how “proactive” we are in your job we still feel like Wile E. Coyote because we always seem to pull the short straw in the rat race that is the modern workplace. We’d swear we were getting crushed by the proverbial anvil that’s repeatedly dropped on Wile E’s head. Remember the old adage, “no good deed goes unpunished?”

The bottom line is this–keeping things simple is a much better approach to our work lives–don’t make things overly complex, with arbitrary levels of importance, urgency, or complexity as it will probably backfire as does all the attempts of the coyote.

Essayist and Cartoonist Tim Kreider, the author of We Learn Nothing, ran a cartoon The Pain–When Will It End, in the Baltimore City Newspaper from 1997 to 2009.  In his cartoon, he was once quoted as summing up the mentality of the Wile E. Coyote Syndrome. He said, “You never question your fierce loyalty to the Acme brand name, much less ask yourself whether it’s really worth all this personal injury to try to catch one roadrunner; you’re only unsure whether to go with the rocket skates or the earthquake pills.”

Are you spending your career always rushing from one “urgent” challenge to another and chasing things that have no value, or are unattainable, in the grand scheme of things? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we don’t set goals for our career or that we don’t have wants and needs. I’m not saying we should just loaf through life and rest on our laurels. What I am saying is that sometimes we all should rethink the efforts we’re expending on achieving something and decide if maybe we’re trying too hard–we may find that maybe we’re even chasing the wrong things.


One Response to “The Wile E. Coyote Syndrome”
  1. So well stated Bill! A well studied management theory but so poorly integrated and implemented in organizations! Keep up the great blog entries!

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