Dinosaurs In The Workplace

low-angle photography of dinosaur inside museum
The dinosaur effect results from leaders having blind spots about how their words and actions impact staff, derail alignment, and erode organizational outcomes.

A few years ago during a working session with a management team, one of my favorite clients experienced a shocking revelation. He did not know how his team perceived his actions and the team was not clear about the owner’s expectations.. What he didn’t immediately appreciate was the hidden cost to the bottom line.

Identified problem: Inability to scale through the $100M barrier.

Primary Symptom: Leadership team constantly weighed down by the tyranny of the urgent and unable to give important matters the required attention.

During the exploratory working session the finance director, Sarah, blurted out “we feel like we’re walking in tar.” As we peeled back each layer of tar the real issues came into focus. These leaders were not engaging in 3 essential leadership fundamentals:

  1. Vision: creating a compelling vision for what can be and why it is important;
  2. Alignment: creating clarity and getting everyone ready to engage in a coordinated and focused effort; and
  3. Execution: implementing actions required for achieving objectives and realizing the vision.

This team had great people and an excellent product, but they lacked the ability to get results because they lacked alignment. No amount of vision or inspiration can compensate for this gap. Without effective alignment, execution will always fall short of desired results. This team was experiencing the dinosaur effect.

The dinosaur effect results from leaders having blind spots about how their words and actions impact staff, derail alignment, and erode organizational outcomes.

Most owners have more vision than their firm has capacity for achieving. Some owners also displays certain dinosaur-like behaviors. The three most common dinosaur effects that keep leaders from crystalizing a vision, gaining alignment, and achieving the results are:

  1. Bruce the Brontosaurus: As the owner walks through the office excited by recent inspirations gained through ideating about new markets, reading a new management book or dreaming up a new product he begins to share his thoughts. By the time his head is exiting the office, his tail is waving around creating havoc as people move into action. The problem is the owner never meant for the action to happen and he is oblivious to the havoc left in his wake.
  2. Regina the T-Rex. This owner is blind to the way her need for goal achievement impacts those around her. She thinks she is behaving like Rex from the movie Toy Story. Rex is adored by the other toys for his lovable, subservient, and gentle nature. Unfortunately, Regina is no Rex! Her employees experience her more like the T-Rex from Jurassic park. That dinosaur is ferocious, driven, and very skilled at getting what it wants no matter what is in the way. Regina’s people avoid confronting her at all costs. Thus, her business struggles because her people do not trust her, will not engage in productive conflict, and fail to adopt her vision.
  3. Tom the Troodon: paleontologists see this dinosaur as perhaps the smartest of all time with keen senses finely attuned to staying on top of their game. Owners like Tom the Troodon tend to outrun their teams. Tom is the type of owner that is so clever and driven he is always 10 steps ahead wondering why no one can keep up. Unfortunately, Tom’s blind spot is his inability to take people on the journey with him. His team is made up of people with different personalities, knowledge, skill, ability, and experience. Not all care to work 16 hours a day to keep up and many get burned out trying.

But, these behaviors are part of what made Bruce successful. His ability to draw people to his vision, energize them, push through barriers, and get stuff done is essential for growing a business. The solution is seeking to eliminate these personality attributes (that would be an exercise in futility). The solution is for Bruce to harness them in new ways!

In this case, the management team helped Bruce identify his brontosaurus behaviors. As he became more aware of the implications of these behaviors we were able to design a code word so the team knew when to act and when not to. We put in a process for building vision, gaining alignment, and moving to execution. This process is always accompanied by decision-making protocols and a meeting rhythm that allows the team to rise above the tyranny of the urgent. Over time Bruce could walk through his office being true to his own personality without wreaking havoc. Today the team enjoys greater success with less stress.

Overcoming the dinosaur effect requires increasing self and other awareness. While the human mind is not a fully objective instrument and it is often impossible to see ourselves precisely as others see us here are some coping strategies:

  1. Successful leaders in positions of power and prominence must vigilantly observe their impact on others. Notice the activity created, distorted, or thwarted by your words and actions. Teach your team to ask if you are having dialogue (a divergent process characterized by a free flowing exchange of ideas for the purpose of exploration where decisions are made.) or discussion (a convergent process where options are reduced and decisions are made.)
  2. Carefully monitor your words and actions. Go the extra mile to ensure you create clarity about when you do and do not expect actions to be taken. Ensure that you are direct and verify understanding about your intent when engaging with staff.
  3. Implement a formal meeting rhythm with clear processes for decision making and allocation of resources.
  4. If something is important, measure it. What gets measured gets done. If staff cannot identify the measure of success for a particular objective it is a yellow flag that needs clarification.
  5. Engaging a skilled business coach or consultant to facilitate strategic planning sessions or trouble shoot challenges allows the owner and their team to fully participate. An additional benefit of leveraging these skills is the ability to objectively uncover covert behaviors that are derailing success.