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Descent to evil in the workplace

If a team is unable to maintain common (and high) standards, everyone can be dragged down. Do this frequently, and you might end up with detractors and saboteurs.

The road to evil is paved with bad feedback loops.

We were recently able to escape the winter by flying somewhere warm for a few days. Our tickets included a few meal options, so we chose one vegan and one standard menu. I can't speak for my preference because my food never actually arrived, but I can tell you the vegan option was, at minimum, disappointing. For one, the hummus was frozen solid, so we had to scrape it with a fork. However, our challenges breaking down the appetiser were soon forgotten when the main vegan dish arrived, and it was... chicken. Definitely real chicken, as no fake one would ever look that good.

The staff were deeply embarrassed and remained polite and helpful. They did their best to provide us with a good service, but you could tell they felt let down by the back of the house (plane). They went as far as asking us to make a complaint to the company, as this wasn't the first time this had happened. Frozen meals, disappearing meals... they were everyday occurrences, it seemed. So, here we got an excellent example of what happens when there isn't a common standard across a team. And as we will soon see, this can become a huge problem for a business.

Being Judged by the Weakest Link

When you fly long haul, you expect certain things will be covered. One of them is food, especially when buying business-class tickets. The passengers know this, and the staff do too. So, when the vegan meal we received was both frozen and not vegan at all (At least theirs arrived, mine didn't. And I don't want to sound overambitious, but how can a large airline that supposedly caters to different diets and preferences not carry any type of plant-based milk?) everyone felt let down.

This is, unfortunately, quite a common scenario in business. For example, suppose you are developing software at a very fast rate. The requirements put pressure on all the team members, but it's the ones dealing directly with the clients that have to do the client demos. If the product is not working correctly, they are the ones who are supposed to try and uphold the standards. In that case, you might need to be honest and recognise that because you are developing at a fast pace, these issues will sometimes appear. Ultimately, what matters is how you address and handle them.

The bottom line is that you need a common (and high) standard across the entire team. If one part of it is pushing a low level and the other parts are trying to operate at a higher calibre, what will typically happen is that everyone ends up getting dragged down. And, what's worse, many might eventually just give up. Unfortunately, as a business, you will always get judged by the weakest link, both by your clients and by your employees, who might feel they are not listened to.

The Easiest Way to Demotivate Employees

After the meal debacle, the staff on our flight insisted we should complain to the airline. Us, not them. Because what's probably happening is that they don't feel like they are going to be heard. They should be able to say: Look, we're getting frozen meals and giving vegans chicken-based dishes. The meal counts are not right, and there are no appropriate drink alternatives. We cannot do our job right.

But here's the problem: They know no matter how loudly they speak up, nothing will get done if they bring these issues up. So, what they do instead is ask (or beg!) clients to do it for them. I recently mentioned how we got our windows updated, and the company had to send a fixer because the measurements were incomplete. After constantly dealing with communication breakdowns and process silos, that fixer was no longer on the company's side. He was on our side, and he was definitely very verbal about it, to the point where he had given up and was actually now complaining to the customers about the terrible service!

Based on our brief and under-nourishing experience flying with this company, you can quickly tell there is no feedback loop in place. No room for improvement, either. The people serving the meals should be able to say: This is not working. This needs fixing. This shouldn't be the customers' responsibility.

Descending Into Evil (at Work)

This whole situation made me think of Breaking Bad. Without spoiling the finale, I'll just say that the TV series is a classic "descent to evil" story. Walter White begins as a relatable man and someone you are supposed to like (or at least understand). But he slowly progresses into increasingly worse acts, doing things he would not have initially planned or intended. To the point where he indeed does something horrific - and you still kind of support him!

This recurring trope is, unfortunately, one that can happen in the workplace, too. I see the descending into evil process as consisting of the following six steps:

  1. Someone wants to do a good job. They might believe in the company's mission or just think they will able to do what they were hired to do and live their lives happily. Some lucky few might never leave this step.

  2. Many, however, soon discover they can't do a good job because other parts of the team are letting them down. For example, the software product continuously breaks in the middle of a customer demo, or an Airbnb representative has to ask whether you took pictures of your broken hot water because the process requires photographic proof.

  3. Then, they might try to provide feedback. But what typically happens is that no one listens to them. Either there is no practical way to communicate these things, or they fall on deaf ears.

  4. So… they give up. They stop caring.

  5. But that’s not all. They might actually try to get the customer to give feedback in their place. After all, the company might listen to people if they are loud enough, particularly on social media. There’s no easy way to know if someone will take this step, though, so they might rinse and repeat, trying to get someone to do something about the disappointing situation.

  6. Lastly, they just stop doing a good job themselves and, in many cases, start bad-mouthing the company to customers. By this point, they have become detractors and saboteurs.

If there isn't a common standard for teams, then there should at least be effective ways for employees to provide feedback.

The road to evil is paved with bad feedback loops. You don't want your people to feel like they cannot do a good job. And you definitely don't want them telling your customers how bad things are in your company!

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