In turbulent times, it's hard enough to deal with external problems. But too often people and companies exacerbate their troubles by their own actions. Self-defeating behaviors can make any situation worse. Put these five on the what-not-to-do list.
Demanding a bigger share of a shrinking pie
Leaders defeat themselves when they seek gain when others suffer, for example, raising prices in a time of high unemployment when consumers have less to spend, to ensure profits when sales are down. McDonald's raised prices three percent in early 2012 and by the third quarter, faced the first drop in same-store sales in nine years. The executive responsible for that strategy was replaced.
At bankrupt Hostess Brands, bakery workers refused to make concessions (though the Teamsters did), thereby forcing the company to liquidate, eliminating 18,000 jobs. By trying to grab too much, the bakery union could lose everything.
This happens to executives too. A manager in a retail company demanded a promotion during the recession, because he was "indispensable," he said. The CEO, who had cut her own pay to save jobs, fired him instead. Greed makes a bad situation worse.
Anger and blame are unproductive emotions. Post-U.S. election, defeated Mitt Romney blamed his defeat on "gifts" that "bought" the votes of young people, women, African-Americans, and Latinos for President Obama. Losing the Presidency is a big defeat, but Romney further defeated future electoral prospects with public bitterness and insults. History might remember the bitterness, not his gracious concession speech.
Anger hurts companies too, especially if misplaced. Years after a tragic explosion on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 in which 11 people lost their lives, BP was back in the news with a record fine and criminal charges. Former CEO Tony Hayward defeated himself and damaged the company in the public mind by issuing bitter statements about how unfair this was.
Angry words leave a long trail. An employee in another company who threw a temper tantrum over a denied proposal was surprised that this episode was still recalled two years later, overwhelming his accomplishments. He was the first terminated in a reorganization. Bitterness turns everything sour.
Giving in to mission creep
Sometimes self-perpetuated decline occurs more slowly, through taking core strengths for granted while chasing the greener grass. I can't say that this is happening to Google, a company I admire, but I do see potholes ahead — although driverless cars are an extension of mapping software close to Google's core strength in search. But should Google expand its territory to be a device maker and communications network provider, building a fiber-optics and mobile network? This could be mission creep. Perhaps Google should focus on improving Googling.
Trying to become something you are not while there's plenty of value in who you are can be self-defeating. For professionals, this can mean branching out into new fields while falling behind in the latest knowledge in the field that made their reputation. People can get caught in the middle — not yet good enough to compete in the new area, while losing strength in the old area.
Adding without subtracting
A related form of self-defeat is to allow bloat. Adding new items without subtracting old ones is how closets get cluttered, bureaucracies expand, workloads grow out of control, national budgets go into deficit, and people get fat. It takes discipline to cut or consolidate some things for every one added. Too often that discipline is missing.
A technology company tacked on acquisitions without integration, which made acquired companies happy. But one consequence was 17 warring R&D groups and the lowest R&D in the industry. Bankruptcy followed. Growing without pruning is bad for gardens and for business.
Thinking you'll get away with it
Whatever "it" is — lying, cheating, foreign corrupt practices, or swallowing extra bites of chocolate — lapses cannot remain secret for long in the digital age. Believing otherwise is delusional. The mistake will show up somewhere — in routine audits, unrelated FBI investigations, smartphone photos by strangers, or the bathroom scale. In the ultimate example of self-defeating behavior, too many otherwise-intelligent politicians, military leaders, and CEOs think with their zippers, thereby jeopardizing companies, countries, and careers.
Happily, there's a cure for self-defeating behavior: Get over yourself.
Humility prevents self-defeat. A desire to serve others, an emphasis on values and purpose, a sense of responsibility for long-term consequences, and knowledge of both strengths and limitations can make it easier to avoid these traps. Google has enjoyed outstanding success, but that doesn't mean it will succeed at everything. The bakery union that fought Hostess into liquidation had solidarity, but perhaps it, too, should have eaten a little humble pie.