Diagnosing Workaday Insanity 

Somewhere along the way I became convinced that we are all crazy in one way or another.  Anyone who has spent time in a modern company will see that each of us, at one time or another, comes up a few fries short of a happy meal (for evidence, check in daily with Dilbert).  I’m not talking about diagnosable mental illnesses—debilitating conditions like paranoia, schizophrenia, or chronic depression.  I’m talking about garden-variety craziness that we see (and create) every day in the workplace.

I think that most of us can readily be classified into to one of two broad categories of crazy:  Neurotics and “Not-my-problem-otics” [despite these scientific-sounding names, be warned that my errant musings below are in no way (to my knowledge) supported by empirical psychological research].

Let’s start with the neurotics.  These are the people who have an intrinsic tendency to blame themselves.  When something goes wrong at work, they are the ones who, regardless of where the problem occurred, are likely to feel some a strong sense of responsibility—and will generally work hard to try to fix the problem. Neurotics personalize any failures of the organization and are the ones most likely to work extra hours, pick up additional responsibilities, and to “rattle the cages” of those less motivated.  Walk through your office some evening at 7:00 p.m. and reflect on the personalities of the people still at work.  My guess is that most late-nighters will fit this description to a tee.

The opposite of a neurotic is a “Not-my-problem-otic.”  When something goes wrong at their company—they are able to quickly justify how the problem is someone else’s—and they will cheerfully punch out at 5:00 p.m. and drive home with a clear conscience.  The trouble with these folks is that they don’t feel much responsibility at all—except for a few outcomes which they conveniently define in a way that keeps them out of the messy, grey areas that are always key to winning in business.  For instance—think of the salesman who defines his job strictly as “bringing in the order” and who refuses to take any responsibility for matching what he sells the customer to the firm’s capabilities, capacity limitations, or profitability targets.  Or the manufacturing leader who so restricts the order process that he makes it impossible for the manufacturing process to lose—and in so doing also makes it impossible for the company to win.

I must sound like I prefer neurotics to not-my-problem-otics—and I guess if I am honest, it’s true.   As I think back over my management career, I realize that I have (though unconsciously) sought to hire as many neurotics as possible.  That’s because I think it is easier to get a neurotic to back off a bit, than it is to get a not-my-problem-otic to care more.  In the words of one of my early Texas-born mentors—“I’d rather say whoa than giddy-up any day.”    With neurotics, I’m always having to say “whoa.”  “When are you going to take some vacation time?”
“Your intensity is driving people crazy—you need to back off a bit”—that sort of thing.  And if you don’t watch your neurotics closely, they’ll may drive the rest of the people in the company to drink.  Heaven help you if you have two strong neurotics at key levels in the organization—they may spend so much energy trying to out-work and out-martyr each other that team spirit may suffer as a result.  

That said, give me a neurotic any day.  I just like the way they tend to throw themselves at things so passionately.  Sure, I spend a lot of time smoothing the feathers they ruffle—but I’ll take that any day to having to constantly try to build a fire of commitment under those not-my-problem-otics.

Perhaps only a few of us can be clearly categorized into one of these two categories—but in my experience, most people have a tendency toward one or the other.  And my personal preferences for neurotics aside—I must admit that both styles bring something of value.  The not-my-fault-otics bring an appreciation for boundaries, and the realization that they simply cannot take responsibility for everything. And the neurotics often bring a “no excuses” mentality to their work which causes them to take responsibility for making things better irregardless for where a problem falls on the organization chart.  

My ideal of a company full of neurotics would probably be a disaster—like my young son’s soccer team—with everyone always crowded around the ball.  It’s fun to think about the possibility anyway.  Who knows, maybe I could even go home at 5:00 every once in a while…