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:

  • Employee turnover is higher than the industry average. However, because Accidental Evil is incredibly common, I would halve this number. People always leave for a reason. Happy people leave less often. It’s been estimated that turnover can cost as much as 1.5 times the salary of the employees who leave. I personally suspect that the true costs are higher when you factor in the advantage competitors can gain from hiring away your team, and the lost mental space of the manager in the hiring and onboarding process for the new team members replacing the old.
  • 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.

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:

  • Be explicit with your expectations of people. Have a document that clearly outlines the priorities of each job in your company, including your own. Order these responsibilities according to priority. At Project Ricochet, we have a document that lays out the “Big Three” — each of which *must* happen each week — and a list of other responsibilities in order of importance that should be done if at all possible. As the role evolves, this document should be updated to reflect reality. There should never be any implied responsibilities and when responsibilities are found to be in conflict (or…impossible), a healthy discussion should take place to iron out the wrinkles. People should be hired, fired, and coached on the contents of this document.
  • 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).

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.

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