Here we are—January 2020—another new year just beginning—and an election year as well.  Excitement abounds.  And here I am, as you may well be, in a moderate reflection of the past year and moderately optimistic about the year ahead. I’m using the word “moderate” quite intentionally.  I consider myself a very moderate person in my approach to life and business and especially within my current role as a customer experience consultant. What are the primary characteristics and behaviors of a moderate individual and how does that play out within organizations doggedly driven on intensity and extremes?  Furthermore, are those of us moderate in demeanor possessive of revered characteristics or could they be considered boring, lukewarm or half-hearted to organizational leaders and particularly to hiring managers?

In this reflective mode, I started thinking about my family background, education, and upbringing plus those organizations I’ve worked for over the years and how well my moderate-being fits within those cultures.  I’ll try to summarize those 50 plus years of history succinctly.  Growing up I had a moderate group of select friends—not very many but not too few.  I learned to play guitar, but only moderately.  When visiting amusement parks, roller-coasters in general never really drew me in and of course the “tower of terror” would have been completely out of the question.  Up through high school, I managed to produce moderate grades.  In graduate school, however, since I wanted to learn rather than being forced to learn, I managed to handle extreme GPAs—my one extreme out of many moderations in life you might say. Upon military draft age, I selected to serve and I spent four years in the United States Air Force, during the Vietnam era, and I performed moderate mechanical work on moderately equipped airplanes in several moderate locations—the Midwest, Northern Canada, and California. OK, so Goose Bay Labrador Canada may have been the one extreme location of the three, but I managed moderate activities while working there for a year-and-a-half despite the extreme winter temperatures.

Realizing that a military career wasn’t my cup of tea—too many rules and regulations—I decided that civilian life and the sciences were my tickets to career success.  After earning a degree in Chemistry and performing moderately interesting work and building a moderate reputation within the field of analytical chemistry, I began to feel a bit constrained working in small spaces wearing a white lab coat and safety specs while running solitary experiments that didn’t involve contact with real people.  That motivation led me away from the solitary lab environment and into a more exciting yet moderate training and development career (still within the sciences) that lasted well over 15 years, augmented by a graduate degree in adult learning principles and organizational development.  Thinking that this was not necessarily my final career choice, I then took the initiative to write and submit an internal white-paper to my management team describing how I would approach collecting and managing the voice-of-the-customer differently than it was being done.  The result was (surprisingly) an offer to take over managing customer experience for a global fire and life-safety company which I graciously accepted, and which then became my final career landing pad.

Getting back to my reflective question about being a moderate individual within many power-intensive and success-obsessed organizations throughout my career, it occurred to me that, while I was never destined to be a corporate superstar, there was a most definite advantage to achieving success while being moderate around everything I wanted to accomplish and decided to pursue.  We can’t all be extreme performers and award-winning superstars like many that earn that status through blind organizational allegiance.  In fact, putting ourselves within that extreme position has a decided downside.

In an MIT Sloan Management Review article published in 2004 entitled (coincidently enough) The Power of Moderation, author Herve Laroche discusses the downside of being a high-involvement individual within an intensity-driven organization and what he sees as the need for more moderate adherence.  He suggests that organizations explore the power of moderation, not in the sense of rewarding passivity and entrenched individualism through lack of concern, but moreover that moderation has its advantages in the form of mildness, lightness, and tolerance for change and adaptation, especially within an increasingly evolving and competitive corporate landscape.    The article goes on to say that organizations should learn to manage people based on the concept of sticky notes—those pads of multi-colored papers with a mild adhesive strip known for their low self-adhering power and reusability—an interesting and clever analogy.  The article goes on to say;

“The problem with strong adhesive is that it can tear things when the note is removed. On the other hand, if the adhering power is too weak, the notes will get lost. From a company perspective, commitment, motivation, loyalty, trust, values, and identities should be like mild adhesive that will reliably endure repeated removals and reattachments. In other words, building and sustaining moderate adherence is the key to managing in turbulent times, and in the long run, most companies are better off with sticky-note employees. The trouble is that many organizations are convinced they need superglue people.”

I can certainly identify with that analogy and my moderation being likened to a sticky-note–however, in multiple colors and sizes I might add.  Where this particularly plays out within organizations is during mergers and acquisitions or when there’s a reorganization or shift in strategy which in my past life in corporate happened almost every other year.  I had a total of nine bosses over the course of 17 years—that’s about one new boss every two years where I had to prove my value and worth repeatedly. I’m glad to have been more of a sticky-note employee to handle those constant changes and upheavals.

In more stable organizations where strategies, values, and business objectives are clearly defined by leadership and last longer, high-involvement employees are more likely to thrive.  In the article, Herve Laroche goes on to cite Southwest Airlines as a prime example of this as follows.

“Southwest Airlines Co., for example, has succeeded in building a multibillion-dollar business based on the high involvement of its employees because the company has maintained a stable sense of direction over the years. Many organizations, however, don’t or can’t do that because they must respond continually to shifts in ownership, variations in the stock market, arising stakeholder concerns, new competitors or emerging technologies, to name just a few sources of turbulence. When employees are likely to be transferred from one project to another without much preparation, they need to be quickly and easily removed and reintegrated without a number of adverse consequences either for them or for the teams involved. Even when people’s positions are relatively stable, they still need to adapt to the rapidly changing agendas of their bosses — and their bosses’ bosses. And those managers can move on and be replaced, too.”

Herve also describes how organizations try to maintain a “careful fuzziness,” as he calls it, where highly involved employees should be motivated but not so attached to any task or product so as to be redirected at will or whim or by circumstances beyond their control as would be the case during a merger, acquisition, or reorganization.  That requires the moderation I am speaking about here since, in situations like that, employees would need a strong and stable sense of self-worth yet be open enough to deal with the pains of change.  Consequently, what often happens is that employees then learn to play the game by way of fake allegiance to the company and that apparent compliance leads to a personal contradiction in values.  Herve Laroche goes on to describe this faking behavior as becoming an actual and reasonable behavior. I have experienced this in many instances throughout my career.  Who, for example, would ever choose to overtly disagree with a company mission statement?  Yet many mission statements are written to be intentionally abstract or cleverly fuzzy. Herve goes on to suggest:

“And that’s why so many mission statements, company values, and principles are almost devoid of meaning. Abstraction, it seems, is the only way to avoid contradiction. Of course, abstract platitudes are unlikely to boost efficiency, increase innovation or achieve other positive business results. In fact, surveys show that most managers don’t believe that their company’s statement of purpose accurately reflects reality or that it significantly influences their day-to-day decisions. So, faking becomes the standard mode of operation at many highly involved organizations. It may seem unethical — and, of course, it can be truly unethical in some cases — but when people are faced with contradictions, they can’t resolve by themselves and they still want to do their jobs properly without overtly violating unrealistic requirements or principles, they have little choice. For them, faking becomes a reasonable behavior.”

I’ve been away from the corporate roller-coaster for five years now, yet my sense is that much of this dynamic remains unchanged and has perhaps become even more commonplace.   But, in a reflection of the time I spent in developing my career, I truly feel that having approached each role and work situation I found myself in with a high degree of moderation has rewarded me generously.  Not to get overly political here, but as we are now in the election year 2020, I find myself in that contradictory space again and longing for some moderation among the candidates on both sides of the spectrum. Being moderately optimistic, I’ll leave you with this quote.

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”

―Noam Chomsky

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Karl Sharicz – Founder, CEO – HorizonCX, LLC. | December 27, 2019

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