If you're new here, I'd like to thank you for visiting. If what you see interests you, please consider subscribing right now to our RSS feed. That way, you'll always know when there's something new to read. Thanks again for visiting and enjoy the articles.

This post is part of the “How to manage the boss” series

  1. How to manage your boss
  2. Influence and power: more on how to manage your boss
  3. How to survive in a macho organization
  4. The Law of Behavioral Replication . . . and how top managers to use it

The key to understanding why so many good ideas are strangled at birth — and so many able people passed over

What do top people fear most? Failure. They’re nearly all over-achievers. They’ve been successful at most everything they’ve done. Failure is more scary to them than death. Many have never experienced it in any form, and they have no intention of doing so in the future. They have too much at stake. Not their wealth (that’s usually tied up in legal ways that ensure they keep that). What failure threatens is far more important than wealth: it’s their self-esteem and belief in their own brilliance; their standing in the eyes of other executives; their super-sized egos and membership of the club of the ultra-influential.

What is most likely to result in failure? Risk.

Executives try to avoid risk wherever they can — not that you’d think so from what has happened in the sub-prime mortgage scandal. If you’re afraid of failing, you have to be afraid of risk. No risk, no failure. That’s why organizations — and those who run them — dislike risk in any form. Even the most innovative organizations try to reduce risk. Ever noticed how everyone jumps on the bandwagon of a successful product? Copying a proven best-seller is a lot less risky than trying to come up with the next blockbuster yourself and risking public failure.

“So what happened with those banks and their risky loans?”

They didn’t believe the loans were risky — plus everyone else was getting on the bandwagon and (apparently) earning vast profits as a result. The biggest risk, way back before the shit hit the fan, appeared to be allowing yourself to be left out of the feeding frenzy. Not being fashionable is risking looking an idiot, when all those who followed the latest trend publish stellar quarterly figures.

For a time, making money was easy. Any fool could do it — and many, many did. They gained an inflated idea of their own ability as a result. It wasn’t risky, because it worked and everyone else was doing it too. The good times were going to go on for ever — just as they were before the dot com boom went bust.

The Law of Behavioral Replication is simple: it states that doing what everyone else is doing is the least risky option. There’s safety in numbers. Take your own path — exercise leadership — and there’ll be no place to hide if it goes wrong; the results are obviously down to you. But, if you follow the Law of Behavioral Replication, you can claim personal responsibility for any success; and, if it all goes wrong, you simply say that you were only doing what everyone else agreed was the right thing. “Mistakes were made” (but not by you, personally).

That’s why there’s such constant interest in “benchmarking” and “industry best practice.” Corporations pay high fees to consulting firms to tell them what behavior to replicate: what seems, at present, to be the least risky and most profitable course to follow, based on the notion that copying whatever is making money for others is a more or less risk-free way to get in on the same act.

Forget about leadership: it takes courage, thought, and independence. It’s way too risky. Jump on a bandwagon and hang on for dear life. Never mind if you no idea how the technical wizards and self-styled Masters of the Universe do what they claim to do. No one else knows either, so you’re in excellent company. Never mind the quality, feel the profits.

“How does knowing this help me, the poor middle manager?”

The same thinking applies when top people select managers for promotion, especially those who might later become members of the executive group. Promotions bring risk. What if those promoted don’t fit in or upset the balance of power? Perhaps try to change what existing members want left alone?

By the Law of Behavioral Replication, the obvious course is to promote whoever looks most like existing top managers. Why change a winning formula? Besides, this appeals to all those big egos, who can’t imagine anyone being better than they are (or think they are).

The more difference between the candidate and current executives, the greater the risk. Women and minorities pose more risk than white males. “People like us” offer least risk. And, as I said before, risk is scary.

If you want to make yourself look as promotable as possible, the trick is to lessen any risk attached to your name. The more you fit in, doing what others do (only better) and never challenging those in power, the less you will appear to be any kind of risk to them.

Many middle managers make the mistake of trying to stand out by being different. The more this works, the less likely they are to make it past executives’ built-in antipathy to risk. They may be highly able, even brilliant, but the perception of difference is a sticking point. The bosses want to use their ability, but only in situations where they can avoid putting the person into a position of power. So they invent some grand-sounding job, and use it to keep the person safely corralled; or they pay bonuses and award salary increases, while keeping the “deviant” still in middle-management ranks.

“So this law stifles all change?”

More or less. The Law of Behavioral Replication works to increase the chances new ideas — and new people — will always appear less “attractive” than existing ones. It favors copying others and following fashionable trends — which is exactly what we see increasing in today’s world.

Because of this law, many — I’m tempted to say “most” — great ideas never make it beyond an initial presentation. They’re too novel — and way too risky. They require going out on a limb, instead of replicating what other “successful” organizations have already done. The more radical the idea (or the person) the greater the risk involved in backing it (or him or her), so the most creative ideas are also the most vulnerable to being squashed.

Look around you. How many businesses have truly novel products or services? How many operate in ways that make them stand out from the crowd? Now consider how many are virtually indistinguishable from their competitors.

That’s the Law of Behavioral Replication at work.

(3 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
 Loading …

Sign up for our Email Newsletter

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Popularity: 7% [?]