Review: Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits that Masquerade as Virtues by Jake Breeden

tipping sacred cowsThis review first ran in the April 8 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits that Masquerade as Virtues

By Jake Breeden



You’ve come up with a pretty cool and innovative solution to a money-wasting problem at work.

You fly the idea past your boss. Your boss likes the idea and, with nothing on the agenda at the next weekly team meeting, pencils you in for an hour of air time.

You pitch your idea to the team. A third of your colleagues appear to be vital signs absent. A third are preoccupied with their smartphones. And the remaining third, peeved that the meeting wasn’t scrubbed, tee off on you and your idea like a piñata.

Your boss mercifully brings the drubbing to a close and asks the team to email you their feedback.

Nothing lands in your inbox.

Time passes and you tell your boss that you’re ready, willing and able to test drive the idea on your own. Your boss, confusing you with an eight-year-old, reminds you that there is no “I” in team. Around here, we always do better by working together.

So you get 30 seconds at the end of another team meeting to ask if anyone’s interested in joining a planning, implementation and evaluation committee. Now everyone’s VSA.

Your boss takes the lack of feedback and the no-show of hands as a sure sign that now’s not the best time to roll out your idea. You’re told that maybe your idea could be revisited in a few months when everyone’s not so busy and the whole team can get engaged in a more fulsome discussion.

Welcome to the dark side of collaboration.

“Putting everyone together all the time means that the instinct to collaborate trumps the need to collaborate and it becomes unclear who or what can really contribute to results,” says Jake Breeden, a teacher with Duke Corporate Education and author of Tipping Sacred Cows. “It’s time to plant a new decision tree in your brain: is the outcome worth the cost of this collaboration?”

Breeden says working solo should be our default position, collaborating only when it’s helpful and not because it’s an unquestioned sacred cow. The payoff from collaboration must be greater than the pain of getting and keeping everyone on the same page.

We all have what Breeden calls a “getting things done” muscle. If we don’t flex it, the muscle atrophies and we lose our ability to carry a heavy load and step up when an individual act of excellence is needed. “Meetings are ritualized collaboration, with more talking about the work than doing the work. A calendar full of meetings indicates a collaboration binge. Just sitting in office chairs all day makes workers soft around the middle, spending the majority of time connected with others weakens the productivity core.”

Not only does our “getting things done” muscle go to seed, personal accountability also fades fast when it’s always all hands on deck.

“When everyone is collectively responsible for something, too often no one is personally accountable for it. If things don’t work out according to plan, it’s easy to blame the entire team instead of the individual.”

Breeden advocates ruthlessly eliminating automatic collaboration, making teams temporary, letting underperformers sink or swim, owning your results and getting work done by hunkering down on your own and unplugging from emails, voice mail and other distractions.

“There is no greater danger to productivity than the standing committee meeting — a team for the sake of a team, a meeting for the sake of a meeting. Hold everyone accountable, including yourself, and set aside the time and space you need to get things done.”

Along with automatic rather than accountable collaboration, Breeden warns against the dangers of six other leadership virtues with the potential to cripple your career and damage your organization:

  • Bland rather than bold balance. “Disguising indecision as a bland compromise that attempts to achieve many things but ends up accomplishing nothing.”
  • Narcissistic rather than useful creativity. “Wasting ime and money coming up with new ideas because it feels good, not because it’s needed.”
  • A focus on process rather than outcome excellence. “Spending too much energy producing perfect work instead of developing the quick-and-dirty solution needed now.”
  • A preoccupation with outcome rather than process fairness. “Keeping score and evening the score to make sure no one gets more than their fair share.”
  • Obsessive rather than harmonious passion. “Racing down a path seeking success only to find burn-out and misbehavior instead.”
  • And a preference for backstage rather than onstage preparation. “Planning to do work instead of productively working out just-in-time solutions with just the right people.”

“The truth is that many workplace values that seem beyond reproach actually do hidden damage,” says Breeden. “These are values that on the one hand give us life and direction, and on the other hand can steal our energy, effectiveness and success.”

The trick is to take a hard look at previously unquestioned virtues and your personal beliefs, keep the good and sidestep the unintended bad effects.

“Some leaders become fully aware and steadily mindful of the downsides of their and their companies’ most cherished and unquestioned virtues and, in the process, renew their spirits, get more down and enjoy more success. The goal is to stay true to yourself while avoiding the ways your unexamined beliefs and automatic behaviours can backfire.”

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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