Don't get caught by the Law of Unintended Consequences

Too often organizations fail to take into account "the obvious" when making important decisions. That's a big mistake according to leadership coach John M. McKee. It's the Law of Unintended Consequences.

I recently got a call from a guy in the construction business, asking for some advice for his new role.

The city he's located in is no different from most in the United States currently -– it's hurting, and business is tough. To survive, his organization has had to continually make adjustments to cut expenses. Sound familiar?

Those "adjustments" included headcount reduction. The most recent, two weeks ago, was the third such staff reduction in as many years. Two of the four SVPs are gone. Our guy will now interact directly with the CEO, who wants him to address how he's going to manage the additional individuals he's picked up.

Not surprisingly, those who were left standing have become embittered because the workload didn't seem to get any smaller even though there were fewer people to get the tasks done.

"Can you give me some advice to help me force my team to work on what I think is important?"

As my caller spoke, it also became clear that his team members were probably concerned about the future and therefore actively looking for work elsewhere.

Fortunately, most managers don't have as difficult an environment or outlook as this guy. But I think he showed a predisposition toward his direct reports that's pretty common among managers across industries. It's part of the bigger problems ailing many companies today:

1. Business leaders still need to become much better at getting more done with less.

Most need to adapt more quickly and aggressively if they want to survive. Most doctors realize this — stemming the bleeding by itself won't usually save the life.

2. Executives need to start acting like an entrepreneur.

Despite all the new literature out there, most executives in Western countries still don't understand how to do that. They continue to get caught up by the Law of Unintended Consequences, creating perverse effects contrary to what they expected.

And, if they don't change their ways, fewer good people will stay with them. And their company's results will continue to decline. That, of course, will create more failing people and companies.

Unless you enjoy working at a place that seems to define success as simply not failing one year at a time, I suggest you keep this "law" in mind.

And while you're contemplating that one, here's another that bears review:

3. Power is not the same as force. There's a real difference between power and force. When times get tough, in an effort to get more productivity with fewer players, most managers simply try to push their teams ever harder. It's kind of like trying to break your dog of a bad habit by using a whip -– it'll work for a while but at some stage you may end up getting bitten.

Especially in today's environment, it's particularly important to ask your team members for advice:

  • Frequently they have innovative ideas; after all they're actually doing the work, and they talk about it all the time.
  • You may find out that the staff levels are prepared to make big changes in their roles (e.g. moving to part-time, job sharing, taking additional time off without pay, benefits cuts, etc.) in order to keep employed.
  • They'll likely be more satisfied because they were asked for their opinion, so individual productivity won't tank entirely.

The outlook for business in the flattened world of competition is very tough. Highly educated managers from other countries are competing for the same customers and opportunities everywhere.

I'm convinced that the truly great managers will prevail and thrive. But the rest — those still holding on to obsolete management approaches — will fail sooner than later.

Here's to your future.


Leadership Coach


John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

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