Why Doesn’t Everyone Like Us?

Those of us who are part of Goodwill know that we have a good organization that is made up of good people. And we know we have a mission that is appealing to just about everyone. We also know that well over 90% of the population is not only aware of Goodwill, but also has a favorable opinion of the organization. But there are still some people who don’t like us. Why? And what can we do about it?

I believe the people who don’t like our organization fall into four categories:

1. The uninformed or misinformed. Some people don’t like us because they don’t know enough about us. This category includes those who have erroneous assumptions that logically lead to incorrect conclusions about our operations and services (and sometimes about our competence and integrity).

To reduce the number of people in this group, we must seize every opportunity to provide facts that counter erroneous assumptions and constantly do as much as possible to increase public understanding of what we do and why we do it.

2. The aggrieved. These are people who have had a bad experience with Goodwill. I subdivide this group into two categories:

a. The pouters. These are people who don’t like a decision we made or an action we took, even though we acted responsibly and were fully justified in our actions. There’s not a lot we can do about those in this category other than ensure that the decisions we make and the way we operate are consistent with our values and based on sound criteria and sound processes. We also need to respond as well as we can to these kinds of concerns when they are addressed directly to us.
b. The justifiably aggrieved. These are people we have not treated well or with whom we have made a mistake. Obviously, we can reduce the number of people in this category by constantly improving our performance. And when we do become aware of a mistake we’ve made, we should correct it as quickly and fully as possible, do our best to make amends, and remember to say, “I’m sorry.”

3. The philosophically opposed. Goodwill has not historically encountered much opposition on philosophical or ideological grounds. However, in our efforts to provide opportunities to certain populations or address a particular social problem, we do occasionally encounter people who simply do not agree with our position or direction. While we might never win the support of some of those individuals, we can at least do our best to explain the rationale behind our positions and directions.

4. The jealous. The larger and more successful we become, the more we are likely to encounter individuals who are jealous or resentful of our success. There will always be some people in this category, and we can’t control that. But we can guard against adding to their number by treating everyone with respect, by not acting or appearing arrogant, and by not bragging.

Altogether, I suspect the total number of people in all of these categories is a very small percentage of the population. However, it is in the best interests of our organization to constantly strive to reduce the number of such people. This, in turn, will tend to increase the number of strong supporters we have and will minimize the amount of time and energy we must spend responding to complaints, criticisms, and accusations. While we should realize that, regardless of what we do, not everyone will like us, it is important for us to do all we can to avoid unintentionally giving anyone a reason not to think highly of our organization and its work.

The law of unintended consequences

It still amazes me how many well-intentioned efforts end up having negative unintended consequences. With some pieces of federal legislation now encompassing well over a thousand pages, it seems a corollary to the Law might be “The magnitude of the unintended consequences is directly proportional to the number of pages in the bill.”

In 1975 Steven Kerr wrote a now-classic article titled, “On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B.” The article is no less applicable today, and examples can be found in innumerable aspects of life and work.

For example, I have always considered it dangerous to base a significant part of anyone’s compensation solely on hitting a number. In far too many cases, people will find a way to hit the number, but in ways that will be damaging in the long run.

A similar situation might be seen in the complex formulas used to determine school funding or to evaluate the performance of schools. While there are seldom simple solutions to complex problems, it seems to me that the greater the difficulty explaining a formula for funding or evaluating schools, the greater the likelihood of unintended negative consequences.

There’s also a danger in over-simplification, though. For example, most people would agree that helping students achieve is important and that teachers and schools should be held accountable for their performance. However, many well-intended efforts to improve student academic achievement levels base individual student performance, overall school performance, and the effectiveness of teachers primarily on standardized test scores. In addition, standardized test scores or letter grades determined by them are often the only measures of evaluation published in mass media. Unfortunately, with stakes so high, we are seeing an increasing number of instances where cheating has occurred or administrators have found ways to “game” the system to improve their ratings. Meanwhile, other important aspects of what many consider a good education are given far less than optimal attention, if not completely ignored.

Maybe this is just an application of the old adage that every time you solve one problem, you create another. Part of the problem, of course, is the sheer complexity of our world. Yet, efforts to construct complex solutions or seemingly simple solutions to complex problems frequently end up being ineffective or even harmful. We simply can’t anticipate every possible situation or combination of circumstances.

All of these examples underscore how important it is that we go to great lengths and take great care to try to get the metrics and incentives right. And always be mindful of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

An entrepreneurial culture

“Continuous improvement,” one of our Five Basic Principles, has become so ingrained in our organization’s culture that our people implement countless relatively modest, incremental improvements throughout Goodwill each year. Cumulatively, those mostly small improvements make an enormously positive difference in the quality, effectiveness, and productivity of our work.

In addition, though, we have an entrepreneurial inclination that has been a huge factor in how we have grown and evolved over the years. I recently compiled a list of 95 significant initiatives we’ve undertaken during the last 37 years. Some were completely new business ventures or mission-related services, while others were major variations or extensions of something we were already doing. The financial investments associated with those initiatives have varied substantially, and in several instances the risks to our reputation have been greater than the financial risks.

I classified the success (or lack thereof) of those initiatives in baseball terms. Here are the results:

  • 10 home runs (six with bases loaded)
  • 73 singles, doubles, and a few triples
  • 12 strikeouts (one with bases loaded)

I don’t know if there’s any real significance to the fact that the number of home runs and strikeouts have been approximately the same, but it might be a reasonable indicator of our tolerance for risk. Of course, the fact that we’re not only still around, but are doing pretty well overall, is evidence that we haven’t bet the whole organization on any of those initiatives. And the overwhelming success of the “grand slam” home runs has far outweighed the cumulative effect of all of the strikeouts.

The primary key to our ability to take this approach has been and remains our board of directors. They’ve not only given us the freedom to try lots of different ways of growing the organization and increasing its impact, they’ve also given us the freedom to fail at some of what we try and learn and grow from the experiences. Of course, it helps that our batting average over the years has been pretty good.

In a piece titled “Fail often, fail well” in the April 14, 2011 issue of The Economist, Schumpeter wrote, “The best way to avoid short-term failure is to keep churning out the same old products, though in the long term this may spell your doom. Businesses cannot invent the future – their own future – without taking risks.”

The same column noted that “there is no point in failing fast if you fail to learn from your mistakes.” We’ve been fortunate in having had a lot of continuity among people in key positions – especially at the board and senior management levels. This has blessed us with a strong institutional memory, which helps prevent us from repeating our mistakes. Of course, because we have strong entrepreneurial instincts, we’ll make new mistakes. But that’s OK as long as we continue to ensure that the risks we take are prudent and that we continue to learn and grow from our experiences.

Change

There are a lot of wonderful quotes on the subject of change. Some of my favorites are:

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”  –  J. Edwards Deming

Things will get better – despite our efforts to improve them.”  –  Will Rogers

Change is not a problem to be overcome. It is the essence of business success.”  –  From Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership by Goldstein, Hazy, and Lichtenstein

Change is debilitating when done to us, but exhilarating when done by us.” – Rosabeth Moss Kanter

People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.”  –  Richard Teerlink

No organization is so screwed up somebody doesn’t like it as it is.”  –  Anonymous

He stayed the same as before, but the same was no longer befitting.”  –  Cicero

Change is good. You go first.”  –  Dilbert

If you can’t learn to love change, at least learn to live with it without whining too much.”  –  Jim McClelland (I had to include one of my own)

There are three basic reasons for change in an organization:

  1. Sometimes we initiate change because we see an opportunity – including an opportunity to improve or innovate.
  2. Sometimes we initiate change because of something we think or fear might happen.
  3. Sometimes we are forced to change in response to something that has already happened.

We’ve had plenty of examples of all of these in our organization, as over the years we’ve tried an enormous number of different ways of growing our businesses and accomplishing our mission. Some of those initiatives have been wildly successful, some have worked out reasonably well – at least for awhile, and some have been miserable failures. But we’ve learned from all of them. Over time, this approach has resulted in a culture in which change is normal and expected, though certainly not always loved and embraced.

In his book, Managing in a Time of Great Change, Peter Drucker wrote, “Society, community, and family all try to maintain stability and prevent, or at least slow down change. But the modern organization must be organized for innovation, or ‘creative destruction’. We should periodically ask of every process, product, procedure, and policy, ‘If we did not do this already, would we go into it now, knowing what we know now.’ If the answer is no, then we must do something – plan abandonment.”

The first time I had to shut down something I had started, it was difficult. Over time, though, as an increasing number of our initiatives have outlived their usefulness, we’ve become pretty good at it. Of course, we always try to minimize the impact of those changes on our people, and I’ve concluded that the more we can help our employees learn and grow, the better able they will be to adapt to the changes they will face – in our organization, with other employers, or in other aspects of their lives.

Continuous learning may, in fact, be one of the keys to effectively adapting in an era of rapid change. As Eric Hoffer wrote, “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future, while the learned usually find themselves beautifully equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”

The Five Basic Principles

Individuals who want to have a good reputation need to follow some pretty basic rules, such as:

  • Don’t lie, steal, or cheat
  • Do what you say you will do
  • Never do anything you wouldn’t want posted on the Internet for all to see

Organizations that want to maintain a good reputation must have people who follow the same basic rules. But organizations also need a culture based on a set of articulated values that, when exemplified in the way people go about their work, result in the desired performance. The culture must be one in which people understand that while achieving the business goals is important, how you achieve them is equally important.

As Collins and Porras reported in Built to Last – Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, companies that have managed to thrive over long periods of time have constancy of purpose and a few core values. But everything else changes over time.

Whatever the articulated values, it is essential to have an effective way to link the values with the business goals and ingrain those values into the culture. In our central Indiana Goodwill organization, the approach we take today started in the early 1990s when we articulated five basic principles we should apply in all of our work:

  • Respect for people. We strive to treat everyone in a respectful manner.
  • Customer satisfaction. We strive to meet or exceed the expectations customers, donors, and users of our services have of us.
  • Informed decision-making. We gather useful information and, to the extent possible, make decisions based on facts.
  • Innovation and improvement. We continuously seek better ways to grow, improve, and increase our impact.
  • Good stewardship. We are responsible stewards of all our resources.

For the next ten years or so, we didn’t do much with this set of basic principles. Then we decided to build our culture around and manage by them. They are incorporated into our recruitment and hiring, new employee on-boarding, and performance development review processes. We take these principles very seriously. We talk about them a lot, and over the last decade these five basic principles have become ingrained in our culture. I frequently hear employees refer to them in conversation.

We’ve also found that it’s a lot easier and more effective to manage according to a small number of values and basic principles than a thick book of rules and regulations. We have to have some of those, but we try to keep them to a minimum.

We’re far from perfect, of course. We have nearly 2500 employees, and all of us make mistakes. Still, with occasional exceptions, our employees apply the five basic principles day in and day out. If that were not the case, I’m quite sure we would not have enjoyed the kind of successes we’ve had over the past decade.