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September 03, 2009

The Dog Ate My Marketing Report

Blog cartoon 1

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

The American workforce, at least the parts of I've seen, are woefully unprepared. Sure, they're unprepared when they come out of school (I've heard Americans aren't as well educated as people from Europe, for instance), but worse than that, they stay unprepared until retirement. Then, maybe when they retire, they become expert preparers because they finally have things to prepare for that they enjoy. Who wouldn't prefer preparing for shopping over preparing for your business unit's latest most-boring-in-the-world-finalist meeting?

Workers themselves have to take the initiative to be prepared, but it also would help if your company's managers were more observant about the scourge of the unprepared. I know a few stories—at least a few—of obvious signs of preparedness abyss.

First, there was a person I once knew in the workplace who was an interesting study. If I had to describe him, here are the words I would use: lazy, disengaged, watchful, secretive, nervous, and insecure. He turned in substandard work he consistently got away with thanks to the kindness of managers (like the "kindness of strangers," but not as spiritually productive because it means overlooking deficits that hurt fellow, harder-working employees). There was no doubt to at least one vigilant co-worker that he was not only unprepared, but that he gloried in his lack of preparedness. He never made an effort to change, and never seemed to feel the need to pitch in even when he noticed his own boss straining herself to help him. He just shucked his undone work on her because he knew he could get away with it.  He was a bad case.

What's most awful is the effect he had on his colleagues. They knew something was wrong with his work performance and persona (his private self seemed OK), and so they became distracted, ascribing dark motives to his most mundane activities. The distraction began to make them—the formerly stellar-prepared—less prepared. They made up a game involving him. The game was figuring out why, at least several times a day, they heard him opening and locking his filing cabinet. It was probably nothing, the logical half of their brains told them, except the somewhat neurotic habit of locking up his wallet. But the more fanciful (and desirous of being unprepared) part of their brains thought there was something much better than that in the repeatedly locked and unlocked filing cabinet. Their top guesses for what was inside were as follows: A gigantic squirrel he was planning to take home to his wife as a surprise (a unique gift); a society of shrunken people (science fiction, but possible anyway) who had come up with a panacea for all the ills of the world but couldn't get out of his filing cabinet to implement it; or an illegal drug of some kind (would explain his secretive, watchful ways, nervousness, and insecurity).

To make matters worse, they saw that this unprepared co-worker suffered no consequence for his ways even as they struggled to put aside their distractions to get their work done. He kept his spot in the midst of layoffs, and was considered a person with an admirable professional style. His unpreparedness was rewarded!

A second case of the unprepared from my personal experience involves a woman who became the boss's golden girl (not that old, though), and remained that way years after her preparedness had gone away. She was hired in the 1980s, for instance, and made no effort to master her trade in the electronic form it found itself in by the time I got there in the early 2000s. By that point it seemed she was under the unpreparedness grandmother clause—the liberty you can take with unpreparedness if you're friends with the right people and have been at a job so long you're practically a sealed-to-the-lobby-floor doorstop. And she got promoted to boss a few years ago!  Can you believe it?  She's the Doorstop-in-Chief now.

As a trainer, I definitely think you should work to change the scourge of the unprepared. You can't do the preparations for your worker, or prevent the imaginary golden retriever from consuming the marketing report, but you can teach managers in leadership seminars how to spot flagrant violations of preparedness, what to do about it, and the consequences for doing nothing. It's not just an assignment or two, or an assignment every so often, that will suffer—it's your whole workforce. What the unpreparedness culprit doesn't prepare, someone else will have to do work on instead.

Why should a prepared person be dragged down to a productivity black hole caused by a negligent person?  After all, we don't all have imaginary golden retrievers.

How prepared are your workers?  Would you describe them as well on their way to the abyss of the unprepared?  Is there anything you can do to help your managers make them better at preparing for their jobs?


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