'Built To Suck,' Taking Responsibility

Why would anyone willingly inflict pain on him- or her- self? To you or me, that might indicate a degree of insanity—and yet masochism is not exactly an outlier behavior, is it?

I can recall many times I’ve offered something to a friend, saying, “Smell this, it’s disgusting!” And more than once, the friend obliged. According to a National Geographic blog piece, the psychological motivation behind the appeal of stinky things is the same as the appeal of roller coasters, pain- fully spicy foods, and deep-tissue massage. Likewise with reading sad novels or watching scary movies. So, what’s the common thread?

Paul Rozin, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, coined the term benign masochism to describe the way humans enjoy negative sensations and emotions when they’re reassured no harm will come to them. Like your mate passing you a Trinidad Moruga Scorpion or Carolina Reaper chili, saying, “Taste this.”



It doesn’t take a doctoral degree in psychology to “unpack” or dissect why humans do incredibly dumb things. It could be because they are dumb. Or it could be the masochistic fetish, which would explain doing dumb things intentionally in order to inflict pain on oneself...and/or on others.

This is what appears to happen between the hours of 9 and 5, from Monday to Friday in the corporate world.

It has produced the kinds of howlers that have become staples in any MBA program or textbooks—hallmarks of “what not to do,” or worst practices. Things like:

  • New Coke

  • Mars, Inc. turns down the opportunity for M&Ms to be the candy luring E.T. from his hiding place, thereby clearing the way for Hershey’s Reese’s Pieces.

  • IBM, in what may be considered a massive misunderstanding of where the digital world was heading, allowing Microsoft to retain the copyright for its DOS platform.

The problem, as the saying goes, is that if you point your finger, there are three pointing back at you! The real challenge is to understand the reasons why we make these decisions in the first place.

The answer is NOT that we are dumb. We are smart. Incredibly smart. We have studied. We have graduated. We do incredibly well playing armchair quarterback at Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy, but when we swipe our ID badge or punch into our corporate jail cells, something overcomes us with an acute case of dumbness.

Smart people making dumb decisions.

Dr. Jekyll And Mr. CXO

I struggled with this apparent contradiction between how people think (smart) and how we act (dumb). At first, my conclusion was that people are schizophrenic.

Or perhaps it is extremely willful. Premeditated. Calculated. Are these deci- sions based solely upon preserving the status quo and corporate-ladder hierarchy? Hypocrisy is nothing new to us. We see it in politics. We see it in life.

We see it in business. But why? Is it the fear of change combined with bravado as the ultimate built-in defense mechanism? Or just a safety blanket of comfort to fall back on when times get tough?

We see this behavior exhibited abundantly in the C-Suite, most notably by the chief marketing officer. The larger the organization, the less power they seem to wield. They hold external influence in the industry, but internally, they are really just cheerleaders. They address a room filled with their industry peers, who are all in on the dirty joke.

Perhaps you’ve been in the audience at a big-time conference listening to a chief marketing officer lambasting the industry, lamenting the lack of creativity and innovation, challenging the market to bring fresh and disruptive ideas and declaring themselves open for business....only to be utterly disappointed when you cartwheel your way to the front of the line, present your business card, enthusiastically and passionately deliver your pitch, and hear, “Go talk to my agency!”

The explanation is quite simple: follow the money. The real money (depending on the organization) resides within budgets or P&Ls that belong to individual countries, regions, business units, or brands. “Corporate” becomes nothing more than impotent or glorified spokespeople. The words global and corporate (and don’t forget innovation from earlier) in a business title telegraph futility.

One line item they do control is the selection of advertising agencies, which is perhaps why they so gleefully sink their gums into the agency search as one of the first orders of business. It’s not that they think this is their number-one priority; it’s just that it’s the only arena in which they can actually affect change.

It’s also the reason why their job tenure continues to drop....

This corporate condition is not limited to the marketing department. Even the mighty CEO can be limited and hamstrung in terms of green-lighting projects that may step on the toes of their fellow executives or direct reports. When a CEO cannot green-light a project and needs to hand it down the food chain, sorry to tell you, but it’s probably not going to happen at all....

Solitary Confinement

No doubt, there are some bad eggs out there. Bad actors. Badly behaved people. Miscreants only in it for themselves. No doubt, there are those intent on rocking any boat, as long as it isn’t theirs.

We know these people are smart. I’d also like to believe they’re good. At our core, aren’t we all good?

At an individual level, don’t we all want the same things? We all want to be good. Do good. Make the world a better place. Be better spouses, parents, friends, and coworkers.

Individuals are born to create; to innovate. You or I might not be a born leader, but we can always aspire to become one. We are seekers of the truth. Solvers of problems. Always in search of a better way forward.

The quote at the beginning of this book reminds us that the human race has survived and thrived by adapting to change. This is the essence of evolution. We still have this primal gift or talent, only it has been so severely repressed within us that I fear it might be too late to awaken the instinct of survival, which is needed now more than ever before.

I Have Seen The Enemy, And The Enemy Is The Corporation

The very nature, structure, and makeup of the corporation makes smart people make dumb decisions. This is due to a cocktail of lethargy, organizational dysfunction, risk aversion, siloed mentality, politics, slow and conservative thinking, procrastination, tradition or bad habits, and an overall inability to adjust to market conditions.

The systems, processes, and guardrails that were once built to last, today are built to suck. If a company doesn’t take care of its people, why should they take care of the company? Left to their own devices, employees are going to pocket a boatload of Post-its, Sharpies, and printer paper and sell them on eBay!

The systems that once supported the growth of the corporation have now becomes a cancer that is destroying the very competitiveness of the enterprise.

There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. These are the fast followers, but they are followers nonetheless. They are still lagging behind their consumers and falling further and further beneath the cruel and unforgiving sands of time.

In The Land Of The Blind...

...the one-eyed man is king. Only in this scenario, it is the blind leading the blind. Corporations are benchmarking themselves against themselves; against their traditional competitors; and against the usual suspects. They are content to jostle or jog for position within a faceless pack. No one wants (or needs) to stick out his/her neck for fear of it being chopped off by a basement-dwelling blogger, disgruntled customer, or fake news.

Corporations are blinded by the bright and shiny light of fads, or whatever the hell The Wall Street Journal says they should be preoccupied with. They are so obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses, they don’t see what’s coming down the pike. Beware the Anglerfish of nice-to-have false promises and hype.

My resolution to this apparent contradiction became obvious. People are not schizophrenic at all. We are smart, but we have been held back and held down by the bureaucracy of large corporations. Our brilliant minds are being wasted; lost in a labyrinth of routine, neutered by a lack of ability to push through innovative ideas, new concepts, and creative or disruptive business models.

We are not powerless, either; to the contrary. We are all superheroes capable of limitless potential, figuring out how to break free from our corporate kryptonite.

Fix The Corporation (Or Kill It)

If individuals are not the problem, surely all we need to do is fix the corporation? Move some money around. Create a new budget or two. Make some tweaks to the org chart with a combination of boxes and dotted/solid lines. Maybe even make up a new title or two (might I suggest chief survival officer?)

If only it were that simple. And don’t think I didn’t check myself at the suggestion of solving this with yet another reorg (because that’s what it would entail.)

Perhaps the problem is that we’ve given the “individuals” in question a free pass. Perhaps they are not the innocent victims they claim to be. Perpetuating the status quo has become the status quo among people with too much to lose by “unlearning” their bad habits in order to reboot and start again. It gets even more futile and desperate when they combine to form groups (committees, working groups, task forces, departments, boards).

No one is more at fault than old white guys. Corporations are riddled with them, and it sucks to say this, because I am old, white, and male (but fortunately, I’m incredibly immature.)

The median age of S&P 500 directors today is 63. Ten years ago, it was 61. There are 71 directors who are at least 80 years old. Just 28 directors are under 40. CBS’s 14-member board is one of the oldest. Four of its directors are at least 80, and the youngest, 61. I guess this is what happens with Les Moonves is your spirit animal.

So what does your Board look like? Or does it closer resemble the word “bored” when it comes to dynamism, decisiveness and diversity?

How about the last conference you attended? Did women and people of color make up 50 percent of the panelists and speakers? How about 5 percent? Given how diverse the population is, it isn’t surprising that corporations are struggling to serve them.

For what it’s worth, lack of diversity is just as much of a problem in the tech and startup arenas. It begins at school, and focuses on the critical area of S.T.E.M. (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics), or, as it is now called, S.T.E.A.M., with the A for Arts. Immigration holds a key for redemption, but sadly, it has become a political minefield.

Forced retirement is a euphemistic way of saying, “Let those old bastards die, already.” As fun and flippant as it may seem to wish ill on the aging, mature end of the continuum, it’s also inappropriate and actually inaccurate. I believe ageist views are extremely myopic. I’ve seen miraculous transformations occur when “mature” executives have wriggled free of their corporate shackles. Liberated from all the bullshit, they suddenly become the coolest people in the room, with bold, avant-garde ideas that are filled with delectable well as the risqué.

Turns out they were believers all along.

Turns out this isn’t about age at all. It’s about mindset.

The only pity is why they couldn’t enact some of this thinking when they had budget, authority, and influence.

And so, the message is clear: make your choice, and make it today. Look around you at the next status meeting. At least one of you will be gone within the next six months. As in the movie Rounders, look for the sucker at the table, and if you can’t see one, get up and leave, because the sucker is you.

Or maybe instead of sucker, consider suck-ee. As in, perhaps you are the reason for the suckage; the impediment to change. If you and your cronies are the ones holding back your company, then consider yourself served. You are on notice. Your days are numbered. You can hide behind the veil of politics for only so long before you are exposed for your ineptitude.

As the adage goes, people rise to the level of their own incompetence. So, are you ready to take a stand?

Are you ready to make a change?

Break Free. Break The Cycle.

If you’ve ever watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and their nemesis, the Borg, you would know that resistance is futile. And yet, resist we must in order to survive.

The corporate Prime Directive is all about survival. This is not a right. It is a privilege. We need to fight for it. Earn it. Every day.

The next few chapters will clear the way and provide a path forward.

Joe Jaffe is Co-Founder and "Admiral" of HMS Beagle, a strategic consultancy helping clients navigate the journey to survival. This is his fifth book.

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