I read something a couple of months ago that has stuck in my mind, although unfortunately I don’t remember the source. It was a theory which states that most human beings want to be safely in the middle of their social hierarchy. They don’t want to be leaders, they prefer to be led. They also don’t want to be at the bottom of their respective social hierarchy, they fight for the “middle of the pack” position. The theory is postulating that there’s more than a bell curve at work here.
What Cavemen Have in Common With Your Team
The idea is that most of us, due to a heritage going back to our cavemen days, feel that it’s safest to to be unexceptional, to conform. The leader may have perks, but also has to charge the mammoth first. The weakest of the pack is the one not fed if there’s not enough food to go around. However, the middle of the pack is safe, low risk. Entire organizations can slip into this mindset at times.
What (Good) Leaders Don’t Want
This can lead to a number of behaviors that leaders don’t want to see in their teams:
Peer pressure to not excel, or take risks.
Refusal to step into leadership roles, contribute ideas, or even make personal decisions.
“Brain off” performance mode, where they do what they’re told. Only what they’re told.
Denigrating other people’s performance to make themselves look good.
This came to mind because of a conversation I had with a guild member the other day, where she expressed her frustration with the lack of initiative among certain members of the raid force. She felt that many of her teammates preferred to be led, or even micro-managed in raids, rather than taking initiative to make some decisions, ask questions, or self-manage. She believes they’re less effective than they could be by taking more initiative. And I agree.
Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth
-John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Now, this isn’t a big problem for us, because our guild delegates lots of jobs in raids, and rotates those jobs to various people, so there is an expectation of a certain amount of participation. We don’t have reserved raid jobs like Main Tank, Raid Leader, Loot Handler. These are done by various people, officer or not. It’s still noticeably a challenge to get members to step up and do even small roles, though. And I think the “middle of the pack” theory is largely why. It’s unconscious and habitual, but it’s something you’re going to encounter, particularly if you try to build an organization with a fairly flat hierarchy.
One who walks in another’s tracks leaves no footprints.
Making It Better, A Bit Deviously
So, how do you address the issue? I think we’ve made a good start in rotating jobs around, and giving members small opportunities to exhibit leadership. Praise and appreciation helps, of course. However, these are strategies to flatten the curve. In a relatively flat organization, you may hit the limits of that quite quickly. My other suggestion is that you focus on moving the curve. If I accept that many people want to be in the center of the pack, another strategy is to move the middle – move the bell curve itself.
The way this works in practice is to slowly, almost imperceptibly, increase performance and participation expectations. Over time, as you move the entire curve, the “middle of the pack” is now performing at a higher level.
It’s the skill of transforming a negative event, situation, emotion into something positive; “twisting” it so that there is some benefit from the challenge. I’ve also heard it called Jujitsu, after the unarmed self defence technique that uses the attacker’s own weight and strength against them. That definitely sounds like a useful skill if you’re out to defeat dragons.
Getting this blog started a few days ago was partly due to Recasting. If you’ve read the Dedication, you’ll know I lost a friend unexpectedly. He’d intended to support me in setting up WordPress for this site, so every time I thought of the blog, which I’d failed to take action on for months, I thought of him. Thinking of him would remind me of the blog. I decided to use the intensity of those feelings of loss to make something good happen, so I got it done. The Dedication was written first.
“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.”
Does This Work on Big Stuff?
A couple of years ago, I heard Lance Armstrong speak at The Power Within Conference. He is utterly sincere and compelling as he says “testicular cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me!” That’s a pretty profound example of “When all you have is lemons, make lemonade!”
That Sounds Like Deluding Myself…?
I’m not suggesting you pretend the bad incident didn’t happen. Acknowledge it, feel what you feel about it. Once you’ve done that, check for a positive outcome, no matter how small. Look for a way to twist the situation to your advantage. Look for a way to rewrite your story of what has happened, perhaps from a slightly different perspective, and with a happier ending.
Another Real Life Example
I once opened a new branch of the computer training company I worked for, from scratch. I worked my tail off, interviewing local trainers, selling courses, finding office space, and handling all the small details involved in launching a business in a new town. Six months later it was breaking even, and I had over $100,000 of business queued up… and the company decided to close all its training branches, starting with mine as it was newest. My work would be wasted, I’d be laid off.
Once I got over the initial shock and anger, I had an epiphany. There was a ready-to-roll training business here, with all the startup work done! So I asked them, since they were closing, whether they had any objections to me taking over the clientele I had lined up, under my own banner. They couldn’t care less. They told me to go ahead, they were no longer interested in that line of business. This created an opportunity for me to launch my own training business with very low overhead, and I went for it.
What About in Game?
Back in Everquest, there was a dragon fight called the Ring of Vulak. Most raiding guilds never did it. It was a grueling 18-wave fight culminating in killing a dragon for (at best) adequate loot. It was hard. My guild was the first on the server to do it, and while a couple of others got it once, they never went back. We did the event every week, for months. We didn’t focus on the difficulty, we didn’t care about the loot. We realized it was the single best teamwork-training fight in the game at that time, consistently available to us, and we practiced until we became a well-oiled machine.
Our determination to take that “it sucks” fight and practice it until it was easy for us, led to us becoming one of the top guilds on our very competitive server. It raised the skill and confidence of our members to extremely high levels, and empowered us to victory over the next several generations of content. That’s the power of choosing to change your perspective on a “bad” situation.
How Far Can This Go?
If you’re still having trouble envisioning how you could apply this Recasting concept to your own troubles, I invite you to meet Nick Vujicic. His “No Arms, No Legs, No Worries” approach to his life is inspirational.
Atris, known in another world as Karilee, is a World of Warcraft Guild Leader and Business Consultant fascinated by how Leadership, Management and Teambuilding work in two different worlds. She believes that good leaders, good managers and good teams are essential for successfully defeating dragons, no matter what world you find yourself in.