Training: Habitual inefficiency


Over 2000 years ago Socrates bemoaned the inefficiency of administrators. Modern gurus of management such as Adair, Drucker, Mintzberg and dozens of others are still voicing the complaint.

The key to understanding this phenomenon is “habit development”. Habits, whether constructive or negative, once established are very difficult to replace.

We tend to be defensive, even hostile, when one of our bad work habits is pointed out because our cluster of habits is the “core” of personality.

Ideally, we should examine each of our behaviours in order to determine their “payoffs”. Consider, for example, the student preparing for examinations.

What specific topics from the syllabus should be studied? Payoffs are typically calculated by “spotting” the topics upon which questions seem likely to be chosen by the examiner.

But if the student happens to be one of the 25% who have writing speeds of less than 22 words per minute, the biggest pay-off could be achieved by practicing speed and clarity of handwriting because, in answering an “essay” question there is a strong relationship between amount written and marks awarded.

In business, obsessions with misguided efficiency are all around us. For example, I have come across a senior accountant so obsessed with avoiding even minor inaccuracies he will not delegate to his three colleagues.

The inefficient outcome is that management receives accounting information four or five weeks beyond deadlines and too late for the crucial strategic decisions for which the accounts are needed.

The human resources manager who allocates at least 70% of his time to long counselling interviews with employees, many of whom exploit this misallocation of time and effort, is a further example of inefficiency.

His subordinates lack guidance and administration. Training and recruitment are functions left in disarray.

Both of these persons believe they are striving for efficiency and are under considerable stress.

They are disappointments to their own teams and to their superiors. Such behaviour patterns border on pathologies as they are not readily accessible to common sense guidance, nor to counselling from colleagues.

This repetitive, habitual, counter-productive behaviour is described by psychologists as “perseverative” and difficult to eliminate.

Although goal-directed guidance and training in administrative decision-making are remedial possibilities for perseveration, negative habit patterns are very resistant to replacement with efficient new behaviours.

Obsessive-compulsive behaviour such as, for example, continuous tidying of the desk and the office is a pathology requiring professional treatment and placement of the unfortunate individual if possible, in the type of work which benefits from the obsessive behaviour.

For those of us who battle each day to sort out our priorities and plan our activities, Socrates offered the following resolution:

“Put the pleasure and the pain in the balance. Set the present against the future and decide which is the greater quantity.”