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When (Accidental) Evil makes your job miserable

How to make work fun, profitable, and more impactful

What is Accidental Evil?

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  • Your company’s profit margins are lower than the industry average. Accidental Evil feeds on efforts to boost short term profitability at the expense of long term profitability and sustainability. It also thrives in environments where profitability isn’t monitored closely. Profitable and sustainable companies are often the happiest.
  • The team collectively feels that their skills are stagnating and that they aren’t growing.
  • You personally feel overworked, burned out, and under-appreciated — especially if you are the boss.
  • Your organization doesn’t celebrate a culture of explicit accountability. Rather, people are left to simply “do the right thing”. People in an urgency addiction tend to gravitate toward urgent tasks for the next dopamine fix rather than what brings the optimal long term benefit. It often takes tremendous leadership to go less quickly at first so that you can go faster (more sustainably) in the long run — to “sharpen the saw”, as Stephen Covey says. Accidental Evil will flourish in this environment even with the best people.
  • Important facts are mostly kept in people’s heads rather than in documents or systems. The fact of the matter is that people forget, especially when they have a lot going on. No matter how much we feel that we can, we can’t rely on our brains to remember important details. Our brains don’t handle that very well. When people “go cowboy”, Accidental Evil springs up in the cracks.
  • Many people feel strongly (rightly or wrongly) that certain things taking place at the company are unfair. People don’t have the insight or big picture perspective to understand why decisions have been made and they assume the worst.
  • Management is exasperated because people as a whole seem “unable” to do certain things deemed essential by the company, such as tracking time in consulting work.
  • The company seems to make the same mistakes over and over.
  • People do not have a regular and structured opportunity to bring up concerns, get clear direction, and be coached for growth. Rather, these things “just sort of happen naturally” — which usually means that they don’t actually happen, especially as the company grows.
  • Work and deadlines assigned without a clear understanding of how much time will be required to actually complete the tasks by the deadline. In order to “make it all work”, the team needs to regularly work overtime. The organization doesn’t know that it’s accidentally and unnecessarily burning people out.
  • Employees do not or cannot regularly refer to a list of key responsibilities for their respective roles. Employees do not or cannot regularly refer to the company’s mission and vision statements so that they can align their actions with the company’s in a broader sense.
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  • Every single team member should have a one-on-one meeting with his or her manager every single week. The meeting should follow a predefined and explicit structure. Manager Tools, a thought leader in modern management, prescribes that ten minutes should be given to the employee, ten minutes for the manager, and ten minutes for coaching and growth. This provides a regularly scheduled opportunity to identify problems in your organization, improve your team, and connect with your directs on a personal level. It also allows them to “save” up problems for the one-on-one rather than interrupting you unnecessarily throughout the week (and trust me; most of the issues will have resolved themselves by your one-on-one).
  • Considerable effort should be made each week to expand the mental space of the team at every level. As leaders, we should strive to eliminate busy work (or tasks that could be done at equal or less cost by someone else) through delegation, elimination, or outsourcing. When considering the cost of a responsibility, be sure to include the true cost of the task, which includes the opportunity costs to the organization of your not being able to do things that you otherwise could have done. People with more mental space are more creative, mindful, insightful, patient, and better able to make connections that previously couldn’t be made. In my experience, this almost always results in a reduction of Accidental Evil.
  • Empower your team with an understanding of the concept of Accidental Evil. When they are able to attribute the costs of Accidental Evil to behavior of the organization (almost as though it were its own entity), it becomes less personal and more easily addressed in a less emotional and more productive manner.
  • Create a culture of systemic feedback. This will create an environment where people understand the bigger picture, feel more appreciated, and can learn and grow in a healthy and sustainable way.
  • Use your calendar to make explicit deliverables and commitments from your team after each meeting. Make sure people stick to these commitments — and if they don’t, re-set a new deadline. This helps prevent the organization from falling back into its urgency addiction behaviors. Once Accidental Evil is stamped out, this practice prevents it from rearing its ugly head again.
  • Use DiSC with your team to make communication and feedback focused on behavior rather than making it personal. Accidental Evil is reduced when people recognize that people behave in certain ways because of certain aspects of their personalities. These behaviors bring strengths and weaknesses and are not set in stone. One of the things that makes us most human is our ability to change our behaviors to achieve particular outcomes and DiSC helps people communicate in a language that is much more conducive to this sort of professional learning.
  • Invest in metrics and dashboards that allow people to visualize success and connect specific behaviors to this success. Be careful though: poorly designed metrics can themselves lead to Accidental Evil. For example, an emphasis on “number of calls handled” by customer service reps can result in a poor and rushed experience for customers. In this instance, a corresponding customer satisfaction score could be used to support the call volume metric, leaving it to the employee to strike the right tension.
  • When problems are discovered in the organization, engage the team to find solutions rather than prescribing a solution from the top down. People who come up with solutions are more likely to believe in and stick with them.
  • Fire people only after all other options and avenues have been explored. When good people fail at a job, it is more often than not a failure of the management to set clear expectations, provide structured coaching, and give clear and direct feedback.
  • Build redundancies and fault tolerance into your organization; ensure that important responsibilities won’t fall by the wayside when the individuals responsible get busy. When people are distracted (and believe me, they will always be) or have deemed one thing more important than another (remember that we can oftentimes not trust our own judgement due to our own cognitive biases), then either your whole system shouldn’t fall apart, or you should have a mechanism to “catch” this oversight (see points on one-on-ones, dashboards, and a listing of priorities above).
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Written by

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

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