Join Todd Dewett for an in-depth discussion in this video Exploring sacred cows, part of Motivating and Engaging Employees.
- It baffles me sometimes how strong behavioral inertia can be at work. It's amazing how we can find ourselves stuck in routines and ruts that aren't productive. One of the most important examples of this tendency concerns something referred to as a "sacred cow." Some people call them "sacred cows," others refer to the invisible elephant in the room. No matter what you call them, they're a problem. A sacred cow is at thing that everybody knows about, a thing that causes problems or hampers productivity, but also a thing that no one will openly talk about or try to address.
For some reasons, it's off limits and untouchable. For example, imagine a company where the president's son was hired as a mid-level manager, reporting directly to his father. As the months pass by, it becomes clear that the son is not a great leader. It turns out, he really doesn't have a knack for communication and his team begins to underperform. However, when it comes time for evaluations, he's rated highly and receives a big raise just like everybody else. Further, even though it's against company policy, he's allowed to use a company truck for personal transportation, 24/7, and the company even pays for his gas.
Everyone knows the son is not a great performer and that he's treated, nonetheless, like a superstar with perks no one else enjoys. What should happen here is that someone kindly provides feedback to the president about how the situation is being perceived in order to give him a chance to correct course. Unfortunately, what often happens, driven by respect or fear, is that nobody says anything. The problem continues to fester and people simply learn to live with it. It becomes a sacred cow. Or how about this? Imagine a company with a history of nothing but success and growth.
They're always hiring and have never had an occasion to fire anyone due to company performance. In addition, they've developed a culture that always give people a second chance. Letting people go due to poor performance is unheard of since they believe they can help and improve anyone to make them a valuable part of the team. Then, eventually, tough competition or a tough economy surprises the company. Revenues fall, and a head count reduction seems very necessary. However, instead of getting honest about managing talent, the leadership team resists firing anyone.
Instead, they cancel expense accounts and institute an across-the-board pay cut. Everyone is made to suffer. Not even poor performers are let go. But no one says anything because it's against the rules to talk about firing people, even when they honestly need to be let go. There are a million examples of sacred cows like these inside organizations. They exist because maybe at one point in time they made sense, but no longer do. Or because even though they are illogical, those in power don't want to address them. What I would like you to see is that sacred cows represent amazing targets you can use to signal your desire for real change.
Before I go any further, I must be very clear about the risk involved in attempting to actually use a sacred cow. If you choose to talk about the unspeakable, be ready because you might anger certain people who don't like the boat to be rocked. However, if you're in a formal position of leadership, one of the things you're always looking for is a mechanism that will allow others to clearly understand that you mean business. You need a way to communicate that helps you break through the clutter of messages they are bombarded with every day.
If you honestly wish to move the organization from conflict avoidance to real, vibrant candor, the invisible elephant in the room can be a great choice. When you finally talk about and act on one of the small number of sacred cows in your organization, the team will pay attention. It tells them you're serious. It shows them you're willing to take a risk to make the system more honest and transparent. By taking this type of risk, you become more real and seen as more focused and brave. You become a more credible leader because you're no longer willing to avoid the obvious.
Sacred cows and invisible elephants always seem to exist, usually in small numbers. Typically, they don't ruin an organization, but they function as a difficult drag on morale and productivity. The next time you really wish to show the team that you're serious about change and improvement, start by addressing one of those untouchable topics. Risks aside, it's a great way to get people's attention and show determination.
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- Assessing employee engagement
- Providing autonomy
- Building a transparent culture
- Modeling desired behavior
- Using monetary and nonmonetary motivators
- Fostering accountability
- Developing career paths for employees<br><br>
- The PMI Registered Education Provider logo is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.