When Is the Cost of Winning Too High?

Does the end justify the means at your company? “Means” could be anything from employees who routinely work for you (whether at home or at the office) until late at night to borderline-unethical behaviors. 

A piece posted to Phys.Org last week by San Diego State University comforted me because it contended that winning at all costs results in only short-term gains. The Machiavellian personality, in particular, is not good for corporate culture, the article quotes Dr. Gabi Eissa, management professor at the Fowler College of Business at San Diego State University, as saying. “Employees with Machiavellian personalities tend to not trust others; show a willingness to engage in amoral behavior; and exhibit a desire to maintain interpersonal control,” noted Eissa. “They tend to believe that a co-worker’s success is risky, so they become motivated to see others lose. Often, they feel that when co-workers lose, they win.”

Some organizations seek out and reward Machiavellian personalities, euphemistically calling them “Type A” personalities. To me, that means the boss with exacting, perfectionist standards who insists that every tiny detail be perfect before employees can be excused from work for the day. From my perspective—a Type B personality if ever there was one—that mentality of perfectionism at all costs edges close to mental illness. It makes me imagine a manager who keeps a cup full of supplies such as pens and rubber bands on his desk, and each morning carefully counts out each one. If one is missing, he has his employees look for it, with no one allowed to do anything else until the missing pen or rubber band is found. He justifies the behavior by saying he’s doing it to foster a culture of accountability. Sound crazy? It’s a crazy-sounding hypothetical example, but there are real-life managers who would do such a thing. 

Perfectionism and end-justifies-the-means culture go hand-in-hand. The Machiavellian mindset has a goal it’s striving toward, and it has to meet that ideal; anything short of that perfect ideal is failure. So that personality does whatever has to be done—no matter the cost—to reach that ideal. Do you think of perfectionism and tunnel vision as a virtue? I think of it as a flaw. 

The expression, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” has always resonated for me. You may have a specific goal that is your ideal, but if it turns out you can’t reach that precise goal without damaging costs, then maybe you can still reach a place that’s heading in the right direction, and is an improvement.

What is your corporate culture? Do you emphasize perfectionism and the importance of reaching every goal, even if it means employees work well past the time you are paying them for, resulting in burnout and a high employee turnover rate? Does your culture have such exacting standards that employees are pushed to make ethical compromises? 

A key part of leadership development programs is the criteria for whom your company wants to put on a leadership track. In addition to accomplishments such as the revenues employees have generated, or the valuable ideas they came up with and nurtured, the ways in which they reached those goals also should be examined. How do the employees seem to feel about this person? Is she obviously beloved by co-workers, with many seeking her out for projects and consultation? Or is this a person others express reluctance to work with? If an employee is losing, rather than making, friends, in her work, it could be a sign this is not a person you want to make a leader. 

Effectiveness and perfectionism can be impressive, but the other side of that story is how that effectiveness and perfectionism happened. The best corporate cultures have values as their ideals, such as how customers should be treated, or the level of innovation that is expected, so actions that take the company closer to those ideals are promoted over short-term goals that may not be worth the cost.

What is your company’s culture in goal-setting, and the lengths to which employees are expected to go to reach those goals?

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