When (Accidental) Evil makes your job miserable

How to make work fun, profitable, and more impactful

What is Accidental Evil?

In economics, a negative externality is a cost that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. A classic example involves pollution; when companies pollute the air that we breathe, those in the vicinity feel the effect from health problems while the polluters benefit from less costly manufacturing costs (as low-pollution manufacturing methods are generally more expensive).

Accidental Evil is a form of negative externality that occurs when groups of people work together in a company, a society, a family, or a partnership. In this phenomenon, individuals consider options and make decisions that at the time seem to be the best path forward, but which incur hidden and unconsidered costs on others (and often even the individual making the decision) in unforeseen ways. Ironically, the very reason the decision was often made was to avoid some small exertion of energy, effort, or expense — but as a result of the negative externality, the decision eventually results in exponentially more expense than the alternative choice.

Every single person who has spent any time in a group has been the victim of Accidental Evil. Usually, it’s the result of people not understanding the impact of their decisions. Human beings are notoriously bad at weighing long-term impacts. We suffer from a host of confirmation biases when considering options — each of which means that we are pretty much guaranteed to make bad decisions in great frequency.

Worst of all, our days are filled with activities that leave little room for the mental space needed to overcome the odds that are stacked against us when making decisions. Cell phone addiction (a very real problem) for example, results in individuals occupying every spare moment in an activity, often of dubious value, with little time left over for self-reflection or intentionality.

This is a very real problem in today’s society; Accidental Evil results in tremendous psychological, familial, professional, and financial costs — which could be dramatically reduced with a few simple measures.

Over the past ten years, I have identified over 300 examples of Accidental Evil in the various ventures I have led. For the purposes of introduction, however, I’d like to share just three examples of Accidental Evil that I think are highly illustrative of the phenomenon.

(But fear not! We will then explore ways that you can fortify your organization against Accidental Evil for a brighter future.)

Example #1: The most dramatic

A smoker is driving down a winding forest road on a hot summer’s day. Lost in thought, he decides to discard his cigarette butt out the window rather than get his newly cleaned ashtray dirty, not considering the fact that the forest is on high fire alert. The cigarette starts a forest fire that kills three people and burns 250 homes to the ground. Had someone asked him to consider the potential costs of his actions, he would most certainly have chosen to extinguish the cigarette in his ashtray. Indeed, not even an hour later, he had begun using the ashtray again. Doing so an hour earlier had virtually zero cost for him — but unfathomable costs for the families whose lives his actions turned upside down.

Example #2: The most pernicious

A manager is tasked with getting a project out the door by end-of-month in order to hit a deadline set by the board. The manager rallies his directs and conveys the importance of hitting the deadline. The team works 60–70 hour weeks until launch at which point the team promptly celebrates their hard-earned victory. But then another deadline hits. And yet another. The team wants very much to hit each deadline and loves what they do. But the unyielding march takes its toll on each team member’s morale and family over time. Within two years, half the team had accepted offers at competing firms because the pace was unsustainable. Two of the team were finalizing divorce with their partners at least in part due to the workload and stress it brought to the marriage. One team member had become a functioning alcoholic to deal with the stress. The turnover costs to the organization were higher than the profit brought in by the initiatives that the team worked on resulting in a net loss. Worst of all, the deadlines set by the board were completely arbitrary and could have easily been extended to make the workload more reasonable. The board and the manager just never considered the true costs.

Example #3: The most personal

A manager had a reputation for being insensitive and antagonistic. Even though he got results, he eventually upset the wrong person and was “laid off” at the earliest opportunity. Indeed, this same thing had happened at his last three jobs and he had no clue as to why the bad luck was following him around. He wasn’t a bad person, he just had no idea how his behavior was affecting others in the workplace. He never once received feedback. In fact, his being “laid off” further prevented him from connecting his behavior with its results. Rather, he attributed it to the economy. Had he been made aware of his behavior’s impact in a systemic and caring way, he would have gone on to be a transformational leader for the organization, leading to record profits and several blockbuster products. But he wasn’t. The company was acquired for its technology four years later. Nearly the entire workforce was laid off.

In each of these hypothetical cases (admittedly, purposely hyperbolic), tremendous costs were incurred by people far and wide. The difference in costs between the paths at each fork in the decision road were marginal — but the true costs could not have been more dramatic.

In your own life, there are doubtless countless examples of less dramatic instances of Accidental Evil. Based on the template above, you can no doubt think of several that have happened to you in the very recent past — not just at work, but also at home and with friends. And in fact, you have likely been a perpetrator of your own fair share of Accidental Evil, usually unbeknownst to you, or at best, only made aware to you or realized long after the fact — and long after the damage had been done.

Here are some signs that Accidental Evil is wreaking havoc at your company:

With that said, what can you do to reduce Accidental Evil in your organization? The answer to this question is highly dependent on company leadership, culture, experience, capabilities, and collective presence of mind. But I can share tactics that I successfully used in an effort to dramatically reduce Accidental Evil at the companies I have led, founded and advised. Your path may be different; it’s more important that you simply embark on the journey (see The Zeigarnik effect).

Steps to inoculate your organization against Accidental Evil:

Of course there are many more signs of and remedies for Accidental Evil. You’ve likely thought of a few of your own while reading the above. And as mentioned before, how you will address Accidental Evil in your organization will depend on myriad factors.

If you are in a position to make a difference in your organization by leading it down a better path then you owe it to yourself, to your team, and to society to do so. Also, I should note, this is not a moral imperative (although you can make it one if you so choose) as much as it is a prescription for the optimal path toward sustainable profit. When it comes to Accidental Evil, doing what’s good is also what’s best for the bottom line (see the calculation on the cost of “turnover” above, but there are countless other shadow costs to an organization that I could explore at length — and in fact will in subsequent posts).

Be aware that going too fast too soon could get you fired, so make sure that you take baby steps — and do so with love in your heart. The causes of Accidental Evil play to the same systems in our body as powerfully addictive drugs, so be mindful that “detox” can oftentimes be painful and wrought with relapses. You must be patient and persistent. If this is untenable at your organization, it might even be best to find a new job at a company that is more humane and/or more conducive to positive change.

With patience and persistence, you will prevail; the changes — even small ones from baby steps — will show dramatic results in very short order. The leaders of tomorrow understand that an effective organization should spend most of its time in Covey’s “Second Quadrant”: on things that are important and not urgent. Not only do these tasks provide an environment with less fires, but their completion is more meaningful and creates more value than what we otherwise spend our time doing (the phone is ringing! I should answer it!)

When Accidental Evil is eliminated, you and your company will thrive. Give it a go. I promise you that the results will be astounding. And if you have questions, need help, or would like to share an experience, please leave a comment below. This is a topic that I am incredibly passionate about and I would love to continue the conversation.

Did you enjoy reading this article? If so, please recommend ❤ or share and follow me on Twitter at @caseyc. Don’t forget to check out my digital agency Project Ricochet and visit my personal site at www.caseycobb.com.

Software engineer, angel investor, writer, speaker, inventor, and co-founder of three companies, including web development agency Project Ricochet.

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