4x4 vehicle stuck in a mud hole, with a man attaching a winch. (c) Kris Butler. Via 123rf.com.

When Being An Underachiever Is Really Just Being Stuck

E. Forrest Christian Careers, Coaching, Underachievers Leave a Comment

Do you feel like you’re underachieving because you are just stuck where you are and can’t get out?

Byron (not his real name) feels like this. He was doing well for a long time. A graduate of one of the top HR schools in the U.S. He had been the compensation manager for a shoe company with operations in several countries. He hit a series of problems with his boss, getting a string of “be a team player” talks, and decided to get an MBA while in his mid-thirties. He came out and started working in Kansas City as the manager of executive compensation for a large corporation. After a couple of years, a shake-up in the leadership left him out in the cold. He’s been struggling to find decent work in the years since, finally settling into what he would call a boring job with a government where he was recently passed over for a promotion to a job that is two levels below where he used to work?

What happened? How did he get stuck being an “underachiever”?

The most common answer, and one that undoubtedly will sooner or later pop up in this thread, is “He should be working harder!”

Nice thought except that it’s ridiculous.

Byron rode the Bike Across America ride, the one where if you don’t get done within the allotted time each day, you’re done. And figuring out your own way home. He did it. Twice. This is not a quitter nor someone who flinches from hard work.

Nor is he lacking in either skills and knowledge (shown by prior work and education). And if you’re someone who worries about CIP, I coded his interview at 5H while the others in the class pegged him at 6M. He was 42.

So, what happened?

Glad I asked.

To get to the bottom of this, we have to delve into some new thinking. At least it’s probably new to you thinking.

Let me tell you a story:

Back in the 1940s, after the second world war, Scottish socialist cum English industrialist Wilfred Brown invited the “organizational psychoanalysts” of the Tavistock Institute to do some work at his plants. He later gave a core project to Dr. Elliott Jaques: why is it fair that some people make more money than others? It’s a question that most industrialists wouldn’t ask, but Brown was no normal industrialist.

Why should we care?

Because the answer provides the key to the solution to the problem cursing Byron and those like him.

This answer came not from the CEO or the famous external psychoanalyst (he would later coin the term “mid-life crisis”, among other achievements).

The answer came from a couple of guys on the shop floor.

Jaques had taken to holing up in an office outside the factory proper to get some thinking done and some privacy for any interviews with the staff. One day, presumably while doing some heavy thinking, the Shop Steward and a machine operator burst in.

“We’ve got it!” they said as Jaques gave them that look. “We know why some folks earn money than others. It’s how long you have to wait to get paid.

“Look, the guys on the floor get paid every week. The foremen get paid every two weeks. The managers, they only get paid once a month. And the big boss, he only knows what he’s made when the books are settled at the end of the year. So it’s how long you have to wait that means how much you get paid.”

It’s totally wrong, but it’s brilliantly wrong. And it took the shop floor to provide the key to the next 50 years of research.

What’s the real answer? You’ll have to wait until next time for that. It’ll be worth it because it opens up the entire problem for you: why people who achieve are still labeled underachievers, why some people get stuck, and why folks with perfectly good jobs get dissatisfied. There’s loads more that unpacks from what you’re going to learn.

Because you are the killer app.

Next in this thread: A Brief Historical Interlude

image credit: © Kris Butler. Licensed via 123rf.com

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his “unique ability and insight” by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina’s Mount Baker.  [contact]

Comments 0

  1. YAY for the shop floor! I especially enjoyed how the shop steward and the machine operator burst in to Jaques’ office. I’m looking forward to your next post.

  2. I’m enjoying this series, too. But sometime it would be helpful if you’d post or point us to a basic glossary of terms, e.g. “And if you’re someone who worries about CIP, I coded his interview at 5H while the others in the class pegged him at 6M.”

  3. When Elliott himself told me this, he said that one evening three guys from the union knocked at door of his home. They said that they had been at the pub having a beer and talking and struck on the thought of how pay was timed.

    How politically incorrect nowadays, getting great ideas when socializing and drinking beer.

    I think Elliotts version is fantastic. The union guys were sitting in a pub in their free time, talking about work and in particular what that consultant Elliott Jaques was doing.

  4. Post
    Author

    Paul, the truth is much better! The version I had heard was probably third-hand. I agree with Mary that the great thing is that it came from the union. Both Jaques and Brown were open to these ideas that came from people below their level. Brown had created a unique corporate environment that included what some might call “participatory management” features.

    Michael, I know your concerns but just stay with me! I’ll be explaining these things as we go along. I’d normally avoid these things. They’re really just asides to people who already know this stuff.

    Everyone else: if you’re getting confused, just stay with me! I promise to reveal the real reason why so many of you feel stuck or simply not understood.

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