A number of years back, I saw that my company was going to be facing a particular challenge, and that we could get ahead of it if we took some risks and made some difficult but important changes immediately. If we waited for the crisis, the problem would be that much worse, and it would be even harder to dig our way out. So I wrote up my concerns, came up with an action plan, shared it around, made my case, and… ran into a wall. It isn’t that people didn’t see the train coming – they did. But my proposed changes were extreme, there was a lot of inertia, people had their own ideas, and ultimately I just couldn’t get traction.
So, when the crisis inevitably unfolded in exactly the way I’d predicted, I printed out my proposal, marched into my boss’s office, thrust it into his face, and shouted I TOLD YOU SO. He hung his head in shame, agreed that I’d been right and that he’d been a fool, promoted me, gave me a big raise, and declared that he would never doubt me again.
OK, clearly that isn’t what happened. When events ran their course, I kept my damn mouth shut. I knew that I’d seen it coming, of course, and that I’d come up with a mitigation plan. I knew that the people who could have listened hadn’t. And I knew that this wasn’t a story about how I’d been right and they’d been wrong. This was a story about how I’d failed.
Every company has some number of unfixable pieces of broken product, process, technology, or culture that everyone learns to deal with, work around, and ignore as best they can. Everyone knows what they are, of course – when one comes up in conversation people nod knowingly, wearily, and shrug. Sure it sucks, but what can you do? These things are like the weather, or unalterable laws of nature – not things that mere mortals could actually change. And then one day, someone comes along and fixes one, and dramatically raises the overall level of happiness and productivity. And you just sit there thinking, how the hell did they do that?
Sometimes, it was because things got worse, and the problem went from an annoyance to a threat – broke gets fixed. But most of the time, people get so used to being helpless that they don’t recognize their own power, or notice when the situation changes. Learned helplessness is a term used in psychology to describe a state in which an animal learns that nothing it does will allow it to escape a painful situation – a perception which persists even when the situation changes. It frequently takes a newcomer to see that longstanding problems can be fixed, and to make it happen.
As you get more senior, the focus of your job necessarily changes. Of course you’re given more difficult problems, and expected to handle more capacity, more effectively. But you’re also expected to think more strategically – to ask yourself the questions, where does the team, department, company need to go to meet the business needs? How will it get there? What does this mean for the technology? Hiring? Training? Is a big change called for, or a small one? What are the unfixable problems, and do they need to be fixed? What are the third rails, and do they need to be touched?
It isn’t enough, of course, to identify the necessary actions, or to come up with a plan. None of it matters if you aren’t able to drive the initiatives necessary to make the necessary changes. Self-efficacy is the opposite of learned helplessness – it’s the confidence in one’s ability to achieve a desired result. It’s the belief that driving change is your job, and that you have the ability to make decisions; that change doesn’t just come from the top, and that your job isn’t just to fill in the details of someone else’s vision. It’s the belief in your ability to make your own luck.
One of the interesting things about high self-efficacy is that you take responsibility for more failure, not less. Instead of blaming failure on others, or on the workings of an uncaring universe, you believe that having done things differently might have let to a different result, and accept personal responsibility for the poor end-product. If you believe that your actions matter, then you have the opportunity to do things differently next time.
Back to the story at the top – insight is good and planning is important, but neither matters if no one listens. The incident was a failure because I was right, but wasn’t able to influence the outcome – through persuasion, politics, escalation, or personal action. By accepting responsibility, I could reason about what I should have done differently, learn, and try something else the next time.
No one wins every fight, and it’s not enough to pick only the battles you’re guaranteed to win. My job – your job – is not to play defense. It’s to think critically, identify opportunities, and fight for the things you believe in.