Driving toward downtown Jackson on Interstate 55 from the north, a driver encounters something known locally as “the waterworks curve.” There are three southbound lanes at that point. In typical urban interstate motoring fashion, drivers begin jockeying for lanes as they approach their desired exit, of which there are three in the next mile. The first is Fortification Street, the second is High Street and the third is Pearl Street. In this example, let us say that our goal is to exit at Pearl Street.
Drivers who choose the right lane find that it becomes congested very quickly. There is a good reason for this. Traffic is merging onto the highway from an entrance ramp and drivers are interacting with other drivers who are attempting to move to the right lane in preparation to take the upcoming exit. The entering drivers are accelerating, while the exiting drivers are decelerating. It makes for an interesting sight. If you have ever watched a NASCAR race and seen all the cars attempt to make a seven-second pit stop at the same time you know what I mean.
Some drivers choose the middle lane in the hope of passing the slower cars in the right hand lane and then making a lane change at an appropriate point. If a center lane driver is really lucky he or she can drive farther down the road, then get beside a right hand lane vehicle and match its speed. If the right lane vehicle takes the first exit then the center lane driver just moves over in the right lane as if pulled by some giant, invisible rubber band. The beauty of this maneuver is that the move can be accomplished without making anybody really angry. Nothing makes drivers angrier than having someone cut over in front of them and take up the space.
Another set of drivers choose the left lane. They pass all the vehicles in the center and right lanes, then at the last minute they cross both lanes and take the Pearl Street exit. You should see the obscene gestures at this exit during rush hour.
One day it occurred to me that people and organizations were like the drivers described above. Metaphorically, some are in the right lane of life, some are in the center and some are in the left lane.
Those in the right hand lane of life prefer the sure and steady route to their goals. They do not make anybody else mad. Sometimes they will even let other people cut in front of them. They are perfectly positioned, and like the tortoise in the fable, they will reach their goal in time while others are dilly-dallying about in sometimes vain attempts to get ahead.
Those in the center lane are a bit more adventurous and impatient. They are willing to take a few more risks knowing that if they are crafty there will probably be an opening that pops up and allows them to get in line for the goal way ahead of where they would have been if they had chosen the right lane. They are also willing to accept the consequences of their choice should something go wrong. They won’t achieve the goal. Still, they are content knowing that no one else is angry at them.
Finally, some of us are in the left lane of life. We go full speed, make sudden changes to reach our goals, cut in front of others and don’t mind how many bodies are left along the way. It doesn’t matter whom we destroy because we come in first.
I am not saying that one lane is preferable to the other. One is not right and the others wrong. It is really all about perspective.
The wonderful thing about people is that none of us are identical. We have our unique personalities, desires and needs. Take a moment and think about yourself and your organization. How do people interact with each other? How do those in the left lane deal with the ones in the right lane? And what about management styles?
Speaking of management styles, the above example reminds me of a management theory known Theory X and Theory Y. It was developed by social psychologist Douglas McGregor, and was published in 1960 in a book entitled, “The Human Side of Enterprise.” His thought was that there are two basic approaches to managing people. Theory X managers believe people are generally lazy and do not want to work. It is the manager’s job to keep them in line and force them to do their jobs. Theory Y managers on the other hand see employees as assets instead of costs. Employees want self-responsibility and challenges in their work for personal fulfillment. Rewarding employees, rather than coercing employees, produces better results.
One way to look at these theories in the extreme is to categorize Theory X managers as being overly goal-oriented. They are in the left lane, so to speak. Theory Y managers are overly people-oriented. They are in the right lane. Both will probably reach their goals (their exits). Each will just have a different method of getting there, and how their driving will affect others.
Which lane are you in?
» Phil Hardwick is a regular Mississippi Business Journal columnist and owner of Hardwick & Associates, LLC, which provides strategic planning facilitation and leadership training services. His email is phil@philhardwick. com and he’s on the web at www.philhardwick.com.
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