Dangers of Optimizing for “Role Success”

Could you imagine what the human body would be like if each organ in the body were incentivized and managed according to separate role-specific criteria?

Perhaps we want all our body parts to pull their weight and be productive. The heart may be encouraged to increase its beats per minute by 15% day over day. Your poor eyes might be measured on reducing blinks to ensure more constant sight. The stomach could be subject to any number of possible scenarios – keep up the flow of digestion with less stomach acid (“do more with less!”) or ramp up productivity by creating more acid (“100% utilization!”). Just think about how your lungs could be subject to performance management! What a mess it would be… the human body would be so out of sync you might even question if it could remain functioning. No need to wonder; when we manage the body this way, the results are catastrophic.

If the detriment to complex systems is evident in managing parts, why do we similarly manage our companies to the tune of “Role Success”?

During a conversation with Tim Ottinger years ago, we coined the term “Role Success” to represent the behavior and outcomes of organizations explicitly managing people’s success in their assigned role. Role Success might look like incentives and objectives towards maximizing the output and/or outcomes of a role. Role Success shows up when organizations calibrate and compare (rank) people of the same role. A common indicator of Role Success is role-related titles for achievement, e.g., “Lead Engineer” or “Analyst 3” (indicating three levels of success/promotion in the role compared to “Analyst 1”). To paraphrase Tim, when your success within the “part” is more important (rewarded, managed, etc.) than the ability of the “whole” to meet its goals and aspirations, that’s Role Success in action. Suffice to say Role Success is independent of bottom-line company success, conventional, and widely accepted as the norm.

Role Success is meant to be benevolent and a means of reducing complexity to improve decision making. As the theory goes, by decomposing the system into its parts, managers can reduce the cognitive load of management and ensure the roles are operating at their peak. Management of the parts should then lead to optimal success of the whole. Unfortunately, like physicist David Bohm describes how breaking a mirror into parts results in a distorted view of the “whole”, systems just don’t work this way. Worse, we’re likely to give up using the mirror for its intended purpose (seeing a true reflection) when doing so is futile.

As stated above, the associated thought process and behaviors of Role Success are meant with good intentions. Generally speaking, folks are acting in ways which they believe will contribute to, or be responsible to, success. Therefore this narrative about the negative impact of Role Success is meant to call attention to risk, not attack individuals or beliefs.

As a proposed term to describe a common management behavior, the risks of Role Success include:

An absence of Dialogue in the organization, leading to a stagnant status-quo.

As one of the foundational philosophers which influenced many popular systems thinkers today, David Bohm further proposed the concept of Dialogue as a mechanism to reach shared understanding among people in a system. As described by Bohm, “dialogue in the system” looks like people collectively thinking together without judgement, resulting in creativity, safety, and solutions which benefit the whole. The value of which is no small part of the basis for organizations to commonly use teams.

Role Success necessarily reduces manager-subordinate relationships to conversations of promotion, or worse, about survival. As Role Success mechanisms place people into their parts (roles), the dominant conversation archetype might be best described as “perception management”:

  • Am I a top performer?
  • Should I be promoted?
  • How can I convince her I’m better than my peers?
  • Am I at risk of losing my job?

In opposition to Dialogue where the whole better understands itself, Role Success further distorts such understanding by further reinforcing, and building walls around, the parts.

Rampant spread of a “people are our greatest asset” mindset.

Does this catch you by surprise as a risk? Perhaps you’ve heard this phrase–disguised as a positive take–propagated throughout your organization. Don’t be fooled; it’s Role Success bullshit.

People aren’t the greatest asset of an organization. If it were meant the way Role Success wants you to believe, you’d have heard it as “treating people humanely is our greatest asset.” After all, hiring a bunch of top 5% tech bros is not an asset if they treat folks poorly, degrade collaboration, and create dividers between people. Instead, the relationships between people are an organization’s greatest asset.

Role Success neglects the cause-effect relationships between parts of all sizes, from team mates, to teams, to roles and departments across the entire organization. By focusing and incentivizing only “self” (role objectives, responsibilities), roles lose sight of how their actions contribute to, or negatively impact, the outcomes the system is designed for.

The risk is massive and typically ignored: when we operate under Role Success, we necessarily inhibit the ability to inspect and adapt. We doom ourselves to repeat outcomes and resort to patterns of Blame Allocation as a method to preserving the power relationships of Role Success. Should processes and behaviors contribute to negative outcomes, Role Success often pulls the curtain to understanding how, ensuring negative outcomes repeat – much to the confusion of management. Esther Derby once told me, “people usually ask for my help when they have great people and, somehow, aren’t seeing the results they expect.” You can be certain Role Success is a contributor to this pattern.

Sub-optimization of people’s performance.

Finally, the irony of it all. The intent of Role Success is to ensure roles and people are performing to their maximum potential. Managers wonder how else will the “whole” be successful?

Yet, by following this path–a focus on objectives, goals, and promotion of roles–we ignore essential guidance for managing complex systems. Role Success is an “anti-systemic application”, as Dr. Russell Ackoff might have called it. Simply put by Ackoff, “to manage a system effectively, you might focus on the interactions of the parts rather than their behavior taken separately.” In Role Success, parts lose sight of the system resulting in a degradation of performance and a reduced ability to manage performance. Sound confusing? Dr. Deming summarizes it far more eloquently: “The system people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance.

The entire basis of Role Success via the management of parts is fundamentally flawed. Role Success often results in unfair, inaccurate, and/or unwarranted judgment of people’s ability.

I conclude this exploration with the same conclusion Tim makes in his 2015 post (linked prior): the convention of Role Success is not something to be avoided, but rather leveraged with a deeper understanding of organizational systems. The threat of Role Success culture is not the risks I highlight, as they are merely outcomes. The systemic threat is losing sight of the fact an organization made up of human beings is a made-up set of agreements. If a company forms and operates under agreed-upon decisions to ignore systems thinking in favor of Role Success, so be it. It’s a trade-off decision. Indeed, the threat remains the acceptance and convention of Role Success as status-quo created unconsciously.

(A big thanks to Tim Ottinger for collaborating on this post… and for collaborating as a friend.)


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