The Dependability Fallacy

In almost every bit of advice about success there’s something about the need to be dependable.  Even Woody Allen, who, for all of the craziness of his personal life, has certainly been artistically and professionally successful, once said, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.”  In other words, be there on a dependable basis.

 The only problem with this is that it isn’t totally true. From what I’ve observed, in the military, in business, in government, and in education, people who are talented and dependable are all too often viewed, particularly the longer they’ve been in an organization, as solid and… well… dull, not terribly innovative and creative.  And I can also say that I’ve seen the same thing happen in the field of writing.  Time after time, I’ve watched talented and dependable people pushed aside for younger, more “brilliant” newcomers, and in a reversal of the Woody Allen percentages, I’d said that in about 80% of the cases, those new, “young,” and brilliant types managed to screw things up.  Often the work of the “dependable” individuals is actually more creative and innovative than that of those who make brilliant presentations but never actually accomplish more than a mediocre job.   

 There is, of course, an underlying reason why the “dependable” are so-often shunted aside, minimized, or even discarded, and it’s fairly obvious, and simple, and usually ignored.  All organizations have limits.  People who are talented and dependable – and responsible – understand those limits, either implicitly or explicitly. They know that, for example, why a seemingly brilliant idea won’t work, and, in many cases, has failed several times, each time with another charismatic individual who is convinced that force of personality will accomplish the impossible.  Once in a very great while that happens, but the benefits of that infrequent success doesn’t begin to cover the costs of all the unsuccessful efforts.  But no new supervisor or executive wants to be told that his or her brilliant idea won’t work, and the dependable workers get faced with an impossible situation – if you oppose the idea, you and your career are toast, and if you do your best and it fails you’re toast.

 All this, of course, also ties into the “new is better” philosophy, which is often even worse than the “we’ve always done it this way” philosophy, which, at the very least, works, if not so well as as an incrementally better way might, but in most organizations steady incremental improvements are overlooked in favor of a single “brilliant” one-time achievement. I’ve seen, more than a few times, a middle-management professional double or triple, or in some cases quintuple output with the same level of resources, but because they did it over five or ten years, it’s overlooked in favor of the professional who posts a one-year 25% increase by spending more and burning out people so that improvements for years to come are negligible.

 Then, too, in large multi-layered organizations or institutions, those who make the decisions on raises and promotions often never really understand what goes on at lower levels and rely on summaries and aggregated statistics presented by immediate subordinates who tend not to stay in any position very long. 

This is often why the best of  small companies are often quite successful… and then become less productive or even fail when they’re acquired by large conglomerates – because the expertise and dependability necessary for a smaller company to survive is less vital to more senior executives whose success often depends more on political maneuvering than day-in, day-out task-oriented performance.

 The result, from what I’ve observed, is that, in the majority of organizations and institutions, the higher one moves, the less dependability is valued, unless dependability is defined as being dependably loyal to those who can reward and advance one’s career.

5 thoughts on “The Dependability Fallacy”

  1. Chris Deards says:

    I work for a fairly large organization, and I know exactly what you mean.

  2. Wine Guy says:

    Everyone hears the story of the turtle and the hare but few actually LEARN from it or take it to heart.

  3. JakeB says:

    It’s a bit tangential, but this reminds me of a passage in Oliver Burkeman’s _The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking_, which I just read. He refers to research by Jerker Dunrell (poor guy, but at least he’s Swedish so his name doesn’t sound quite as terrible in the native language) that points out that the two characteristics repeatedly attributed to successful entrepreneurs, persistence in the face of failure and charisma to keep others going along with the plan, are also almost certainly characteristics common to perpetually unsuccessful entrepreneurs as well . . . so they are therefore unlikely to be the distinguishing characteristics of success.

  4. Michael E says:

    The margins are the payment for dependability.

    A thought provoking post. I’d also offer that dependability often returns marginalization. I am a technology worker. My success and that of my department are seen by governing groups in the organization as a form of ‘status quo’ similar to that of a utility. Everyone expects the telephone or electricity to just work. Well, IT Infrastructure is pretty much in that boat today. Applications (Peoplesoft/Oracle/etc.) in less mature organizations may still be shaky but things like the local area network, file storage, backups are all taken as a given. Hence in the successful delivery of these services, any recognition is similar to thanking someoneone on a lift truck working on a power line. Or perhaps a local telecom repair person working on a local delivery cabinet in a neighborhood.

    The corollary to the ‘new flashy person’ is the deployment of panacea applications or systems (Cloud Computing, ahem). Everyone vibrates with excitement about these ‘cool new things’ with out thinking through all of the ramifications. Any cautionary voices are shunted to the back and ‘consultants’ brought in to validate and justify the desire for change and even to facilitate the execution of delivery. Then when the consultants walk away the same people who warned of the risks are left to deal with the very cause of their concern. Even worse is when risks are realized then they are expected to magically correct them. The final blow comes when the yearly reviews of the organization are performed the negative results often outshine the other more steady consistent successes.

    I suppose it is a sad reality that most people do not look outside of their own sphere of awareness. That means what they normally deal with in their daily lives and those topics that hold the majority of their attention.

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