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Governor-general and city builder Grigory Potemkin built fake villages along the banks of the Dneiper River to impress Russian Empress Catherine the Great during her journey to Crimea in 1787. The structures would be secretly disassembled after she passed and re-assembled farther along her route to be viewed again. At each stop she’d be greeted by thousands of stage-managed happy subjects dressed up in fanciful garb to portray a prosperity that didn’t exist. Because he was able to fake her out, Potemkin achieved his goal of impressing the Empress and currying favor with her. In time, the term Potemkin Village came to mean an elaborate deception designed to hide undesirable facts and conditions.

A warning to Royal Families and CEOs alike: Be aware that wherever you go, your outings have been orchestrated by handlers whose mission is to hide the truth from you.

The CEO was unsure how to deal with some unfamiliar challenges. 

For the first time in his career, he brought in a strategy consultant to investigate the issues the company was confronting. At the end of the nearly year-long engagement, the consultant delivered a report that overturned several dearly-held assumptions. Among them was how company executives and employees had long assumed every customer knew every one of the products the company built and sold. As it turned out, one struggling product line was found to be completely unknown to nine out of ten potential customers.

Rosy assumptions versus grim reality.

It’s a long, long way from assuming your company has top-of-mind awareness in one of your key product categories to the cold hard fact that millions of potential buyers have no idea your company even sells such products. The consultant had long ago learned that more companies take things for granted than invest in rigorous research that leaves no assumptions unchallenged. The company created and ran ads for this product line and sales immediately took off.

In the first year after the recommended changes were implemented, results exceeded expectations tenfold.

Over the moon with the consultant’s performance, the CEO offered him the president’s job.

The consultant said he’d take the job if he was given the authority to pull the company out of its rut.

When the CEO asked what he meant by that, the consultant said his first action would be to fire a third of the employees. Gobsmacked, the CEO sputtered how a massive purge like that was unheard of and entirely out of the question. “Whatever in the would make you say something like that?” he asked. The consultant said that when he was introduced as someone who would be in the office every day, all employees were on their best behavior around him. Over time, though, as he became a part of the surroundings, employees gradually returned to their normal behavioral ruts. Up and down the halls every day and in meeting after meeting over many months, he had seen the company had three kinds of employees.

  1. One third of your employees, he said, are highly productive people whose work contributes daily to the company’s success.
  2. Another third are not so productive, but are able to complete simple tasks under supervision.
  3. The rest are toxic employees – destructive, distracting, and draining. They cripple their coworkers’ morale, performance, and productivity, poisoning your entire business in the process.
Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

If I can’t get rid of them, the consultant said, how about if I isolate them from the people who work hard to make your company successful by keeping them on the payroll but not allowing them to come to the office and interfere with the real workers? No, said the CEO, you can’t do that either.

The consultant explained how toxic employees undermine and degrade productive co-workers. 

Deadbeats, gossips, and backbiters, they take a long time to finish simple tasks and do as little real work as they can. They are poison in every way possible, especially by making it hard for others to get things done. It’s your choice to keep them on, of course, but I would not want to take a position where I could not immediately remove the malignancies. He didn’t take the job, the CEO moved on, and the corporate culture is still stuck in the same toxic employee rut.

Psychology Today says it’s crucial to recognize and deal with toxic employees quickly.

Toxic employees create and maintain an atmosphere that is negative and counterproductive. They prey on other employees and sabotage change at every turn. Writing in Inc., Peter Economy says “Don’t let the deadbeats drag the organization down. Research shows that good employees are 54 percent more likely to quit when they work with toxic employees.”

Everyone could easily spot toxic employees if they glowed in the dark.

But they don’t. Toxic employees are skilled at hiding their behavior from executives who rarely come around. As we once told the CEO of a worldwide airline, you never see what your customers see: your reservation is never lost, you never get bumped from a flight, they don’t lose your luggage, you don’t get mistreated by bad-tempered ticket agents or surly flight attendants, you always get your first meal choice, and they always have your favorite beverage. You are always Catherine the Great and you always get the Potemkin Village treatment, where everyone seems to be happy and everything is superficially wonderful.

Strategy consultants look at all aspects of a company.

They identify the problems that are keeping the company from performing as efficiently and effectively as it should. As outsiders, consultants see problems those who work there don’t because employees are blind to their blindness. They get so used to doing things the same way over and over that they end up performing ritualized behaviors that are rigid, repetitive, and lack motivation. 

Those inside the system lack the ability to objectively assess what they do and how they do it. 

Consultants learned long ago to never accept the unchallenged assumptions that form the basis of so many employee belief systems. Trained as skeptics, they challenge every aspect of the business. Most employees find this extremely threatening.

The consultant was able to see what was going on while the CEO was not.

The success of contract consultants is proof of the fundamental sociological principle that something you learn from one situation can often be applied to another. Whether you are General Motors or General Mills or sell flowers or frozen shrimp, you face the same challenges everyone does: employee acquisition, training, supervision, evaluation – and termination. Really seeing takes conscious effort, especially when it involves scrutinizing long-ingrained cultural traditions.

Who is better equipped to see your company’s problems clearly? 

Those who have seen only one way of doing things, or those who have seen hundreds? Those who caused the problems in the first place, or those who can look at them objectively? How many people in your business are so busy putting out fires that they have no time for fire prevention, the systemic solution that would dramatically reduce the number and size of the fires they have to fight?

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