At the top of the Leader Frustration List is without a doubt the change-killer known as the Sacred Cow. While the cow comes in many colors and sizes, it can best be identified as the obstacle sitting squarely in the path of progress. No leader, old or new, is without their story of a great idea, a new initiative, or an efficiency proposed, that wasn’t stampeded to death in the name of “we’ve always done it this way” or “that’s Bob’s pet program you’re messing with”. Sacred cows are defined by Kriegel and Brandt as an “outmoded belief, assumption, practice or policy” that is keeping your team from absorbing changes and moving forward.
We have mentioned the Sacred Cow in past posts in the context of organizational practices and beliefs that serve at their core, a purpose that is entirely disconnected from the point of the organization. Sacred cows can not only be things, they can also be people. Darrell Browning points out that when Sacred Cow’s are people, they could be the “underperforming cousin of the boss, the person who has been there ‘forever’, or the organizational belief system that says ‘we always work with underperformers’.” Either way, as Browning notes, keeping them around is a clear sign that “personality is preferred over performance”.
As Kriegel and Brandt point out, the “change” industry is a huge money-maker for those that preach the gospel of re-invention. However, lost in this 34 billion dollar industry (in 1996 dollars) of corporate re-engineering was the fact that very few organizations were successful at re-inventing themselves despite the investment of a heck of a lot of money. The primary reason was that “people were the gatekeepers of change.” While that sounds cool, the sad truth is that “people naturally resist change”. Jake Bredeen, in a more timely (2013) work, suggests that there are some leadership virtues that actually support the “sacred-cow” approach to managing an organization, despite the well-intentioned leader. And strangely enough, Breeden examined supposed leadership virtues such as fairness, efficiency, or collaboration.
Breeden notes that fairness often manifests itself in the workplace as fretting over office size, or demanding that junior employees work under unfavorable conditions because “everyone else before them had to earn their dues”. Efficiency can be a focus point for any leader, as waste can sap productivity. However, creativity and efficiency are natural enemies and the more creative or free-forming your workplace, the more efficiency can harm than help. Collaboration is a key strength upon which leaders may be judged, in the context of their team and mission. However, a critical examination of success just as often reveals that taking care of your own business is as critical as seeking new relationships and sources of information. “Collaboratis” occurs when no one is in charge, and everyone is included, lest feelings be hurt.
Dave Ramsey tells a great story about Zig Ziglar and a country ham. After winning one in a fair, he brought it home to the house. His wife decided to cook it that evening and immediately cut the end off. When he asked why, she responded that “Mother did it that way”. A quick call to Mother to ask about this practice revealed that she learned it from Grandmother. Now intrigued, the couple phoned Grandmother to get to the bottom of the mystery. Grandma’s answer – she cut off the end because the pan was too short for a ham. Ultimately, sacred cows in the workplace are a conflict between principle and process. Don’t let process win, especially when it’s the principles that got you and your team to the top in the first place.
In the end, no sacred cow can survive the onslaught of the cow-hunter, without a champion. For every process rooted in the past, for every belief that underlines a culture or constituency, and for every policy or practice that has at its foundation, “we’ve always done it this way”, there is a person or group who profits. In many cases, sacred cows support the shadow government of an organization in which a person’s power is measured less by their title or accountability than by their importance to the ongoing life of the sacred cow in question. No small wonder that resistors to change usually have a stake in status quo. As you move through your leadership life, understanding this phenomena can be highly valuable to figuring out how things work, and how they get changed. As a leader, it is your job to champion change.
It may not be a change you sponsored, or initiated, but understanding why and how that team you live for may not see the beauty in the new world is an important attribute in showing them the way forward.