Diamonds or just Shiny Rocks?

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During a very candid review years ago, my boss at the time made a surprising comment to me. He said, “Good ideas can be like diamonds – drop them once in a while and they have a lot of value. But, sprinkle the everywhere you go and they just become a bunch of shiny rocks.” This was not the type of feedback that I was expecting, but it turned out to be both insightful and very valuable.

For a long time I have held the belief that there are four types of people at any company: People who want to make things better; People who are interested in improvement, but only in a supporting role; People who are mainly interested in themselves (they can do great things, but often at the expense of others); and People that that are just there and don’t care much about anything.  This opinion is based on a working and consultant and many companies for several decades.

A recent Gallup Poll states that Worldwide, only 13% of Employees are “engaged at work” (the rest are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”).  This is a sad reflection of employees and work environments if it is true. Since it is a worldwide survey it is hopefully was highly skewed and not indicative of what is typical. So, not quite aligned with my thinking, but interesting nonetheless.

So, back to the story… I had come from running my own business for nearly a decade and being a consultant for 15 years to working in a larger company. I was used to taking the best practices learned from other companies and incorporating them into our own business practices to improve them (and later sharing those improved business practices with Clients). I tend to take a systemic view of business and see the importance of having all components of “the business machine” working in harmony, so improvements in one area ultimately make a positive impact in other areas.

While I was trying to be helpful, I was insensitive to the fact that my “friendly suggestions based on past success” were creating quite a bit of frustration to people who would prefer that I minded my own business. Suggestions and examples that were intended to be helpful had the opposite effect. Even worse, it was probably just as frustrating to me to be ignored as it was to others to have me infringe on their business. And, this was very noticeable to my boss.

Had I been an external consultant those same ideas (“diamonds”) may have been considered, but as part of the leadership team I was coming across as one of those people who were just interested in themselves (leaving “shiny rocks” laying around for people to ignore or possibly trip over). Perception is reality, and this was hurting me. Luckily, I received this honest and helpful feedback and was receptive to change.

What are the morals of this story?

First, people who are engaged have the most potential to make a difference. Part of being a manager is making sure that you have the best possible team, and are creating an environment that challenges and motivates your team.  Disengaged employees or people unwilling or unable to work with others and collaborate might not be your best choices, no matter how talented they may be.

Second, doing what you believe to be the right thing isn’t necessarily the best or right way. You need to be sensitive of the big picture and test whether or your input is being viewed as constructive. If you are not being effective then consider that your execution could be flawed. Self-awareness is very important.

And third, use your own examples as stories to help others understand problems in a non-threatening way to help them become more effective (and then challenge them to do so).  And, if someone else has good ideas, help support them and collaborate. In the end it should be more about growth and achievement than who gets the most credit.

While this seems like common sense to me now, my background and personal biases blinded me to that.  The biggest lesson learned was about adaptation. There are many ways to be effective and make a difference. Understanding the situation so you can employ the best techniques is critical to success.