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Top 10 Causes of Office Death

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If you thought only construction workers, policemen, and WWE wrestlers face serious occupational hazards, you’re wrong. Cubicle dwellers beware! Ours is a risky business—literally! If you don’t keep an eye out, your head up, and your nose perennially stuck into your and sometimes other people’s businesses, you may put your idyllic life as a corporate cymbal-banging monkey in jeopardy. But don’t fret. By learning the top causes of death in the workplace, you’re already taking the first and most important step toward avoiding them. As for the rest of the way, well, you’ll figure it out.

10. Drowning in Data. Neophytes uninitiated into the realities of corporate business management find it difficult adjusting from a world of data scarcity into a world of data abundance. Problem solving in schools are abridged versions of reality. Professors pre-screen data, often presenting only what’s needed to solve a problem, plus a few artificial distractions. In contrast, real problems are surrounded with noise. Our good-student instincts to absorb and use all available data works to our disadvantage, forcing us to waste tremendous amounts of time sifting through data rather than making informed decisions.

9. Death by PowerPoint. Almost as dangerous as spending too much time collecting and analyzing data is the temptation to indulge in developing long winding, overly elaborate, and decorated PowerPoint presentations. But I have never seen a good decision made following a PowerPoint presentation. The way key points are scattered across multiple slides simply does not facilitate a manager’s need to see the ‘big picture’ in order to make strategic choices. Of course, PowerPoint can sometimes be useful. (I’ll send you the bill, Bill.) The keyword, however, is 'sometimes.'

8. Hanging in Indecision. Corporate wheels are kept turning as decisions are made. Decisions together with the funding that come with them drive action. As managers, we must make decisions in a timely way or, when the issue at hand exceeds our authority, facilitate timely decision-making by our superiors.
We must neither waste time nor allow time to be wasted in making choices. While we may choose to wait for a specified time or event before forcing a choice on an issue, the choice to wait must itself be consciously made. Like wounds, problems often fester over time.

7. Starved for Affection. I reckon Adam Smith is under-appreciated for his humanitarian contribution to society. When he championed the concept of division of labor in his The Wealth of Nations, he little realized how that would substantially increase human interdependence. With the division of labor, we became cogs in a larger system of production. Alone, we are helpless. It continues to astound me how people continue to burn bridges with colleagues, clients and suppliers, knowing the dire consequences. Nice guys don’t finish last.

6. Beheaded by Authority. Rebels during the French Revolution were guillotined. Mutineers aboard pirate ships walked the plank. While disagreeing with authority today won’t lead to such brutal ends, insubordination won’t get you very far either. At best, it reduces how useful you are to an organization. Worse, it could get you fired. Authority figures are meant to be co-opted (and occasionally lampooned), not outrightly defied.

5. Oops…Wrong Execution. Doing is thinking’s more useful twin brother. Good strategies are toothless without excellent execution. Executives who mess up in execution may just end up executed.

4. A Stroke of Bad Luck. Murphy once said, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Then, Finagle said, “Anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment.” Then, the author of the Wikipedia article on Murphy’s Law wrote, “Anything that can go wrong, will—in the worst possible way.” Then, I wrote, “Any variation on Murphy’s Law that can be made, will.” Humor: Noun; What we all need to get by life as cymbal-banging corporate monkeys in a world governed by Murphy’s Law and its derivatives.

3. Stuck in a Rut and Rotting. The key difference between a manager and a leader is the distance of their gaze. Managers focus on day-to-day operations and are responsible for the business results of, perhaps, a fiscal year. Leaders are also held accountable for short-term business results but contribute more by charting direction, setting a course and rallying people in its pursuit. Turning into a leader requires metamorphosis. While some managers need an intermediate ‘resting’ stage like a caterpillar does before it turns into a butterfly, others don’t, evolving slowly from manager to leader; like a tadpole does into a frog. Whichever species you choose to be, there is no place for lifetime caterpillars or lifetime tadpoles in the dynamic world of the corporate jungle.

2. Burned (Out). Business careers are marathons, not sprints. If working ineffectively (see Numbers 8 to 10) doesn’t stop you from succeeding, working too hard to succeed in the short-term will. Did you know that amateur marathon runners are more likely to finish a race the more scenic the course? Pursuing a few strategic distractions in your office everyday and throughout your career may be an undervalued skill. “Strategic Slacking: A Course in Long-term Career Management,” sounds like a hit business course to me.

1. Falling from High Places. After having been in business management for years (even decades), rising through the ranks through meritorious accomplishments and a generous amount of fun, you finally hit a roadblock. You feel like you’ve learned a lot but cannot learn any more. If you’ve only spent five, ten, or even twenty years at work, I challenge you to reconsider whether another one of the nine causes of death in the workplace is at issue. However, if you’re in your fifties or sixties, you may be facing a different problem altogether.

In the landmark book The Peter Principle, Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull conclude, “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” This makes things sound sad and hopeless. But that’s not the case. There is a solution. It’s called retirement. Enjoy it!

Print ed: 09/10


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