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Grist: What's Love Got to Do With It?

The level of romantic involvement between businesses and their owners is getting dangerous--for love, as we all know, is not a condition for rational thought.
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Have you ever considered the nearly absurd extent to which businesses have become personalized today? The metaphors we use to describe them have become so deeply anthropomorphic that we probably don't even realize how we sound--or what we are saying--anymore. Businesses can be young or mature, healthy or sick. We nurture and nourish them. We seek to create learning organizations. We are even married to them.

At the same time, those who run businesses--whether entrepreneurs or leaders at larger companies--are expected to be passionately engaged, to fall in love with their companies and what they stand for. If a business leader isn't swept away, he or she is perceived as remote, lacking vision, flawed.

This transformation didn't happen overnight. In fact, for a long time the goal was to look at businesses as though they are machines. It was a clinical view, introduced into the culture by Frederick Winslow Taylor in his seminal book The Principles of Scientific Management. But that perspective seems mechanistic and heartless today. And, in truth, viewing a business as an "organism" has elements that seem reasonable if not beneficial. Who wants someone running a company who couldn't care less about the business? Even so, I believe that today's level of nearly romantic involvement has a serious downside. As almost anyone can tell you, love is not a condition for rational thought.

The first danger sign of blind love is the temptation to exaggerate the positives associated with the object of your affections. Your business is perfect and unassailable, and if it faces any problems, it's the fault of others--most often, your employees who are letting the business down, or external forces: changes in technology or customer stubbornness.

Danger sign No. 2: You stop listening to conflicting opinions. You just don't want to hear them. In the same way that you ignore your family and friends when they tell you that the lover you're pining for is absolutely, positively the worst thing for you. In fact, sometimes it gets to the point where you do exactly the opposite of outside counsel just to prove them wrong. I've seen many a CEO go down the wrong path, head down and all alone, for precisely this reason.

Thinking that your competition is "out to get you"--a kind of personalization in reverse--is still another sign that you are letting your emotions run amok. You become hypervigilant about what your rivals are doing--changing prices, shifting strategy. While these things may be important, obsessing over them is often a psychological technique that distracts from a need to fix your own basic business issues.

Loving your business too much may also stop you from selling or merging it at the right time. Or, similarly, it can block you from bringing in the right kind of strong person at the top. Afraid to share the love? Meanwhile, as we increasingly romanticize our businesses and exhibit the full complement of symptoms--an inability to think of anything else, constantly checking in, taking it with us on vacation--any level of gimlet-eyed perception becomes even more difficult.

It's hard to quantify the extent of this problem, but in my experience, it's pretty pervasive. As I was writing this column, for example, I heard a radio commercial for Dunkin' Donuts in which the company proudly announced that it has begun selling cappuccino and latte. Well, well, what an innovation. What could have possibly taken it so long? I bet executives were too much in love with their business model to acknowledge changing consumer tastes.

How did we get here, so far from Taylor? All the messages we've gotten--from business books, from seminars and the consulting apparatus--have encouraged us to overly personify the nature of our relationship to the businesses we run. And now this behavior has reached proportions epidemic. Despite all the talk about leadership and strategy and diversity of thought, it is amazing to witness how many wrong-headed decisions are driven by an affair of the heart (and thus by ego as opposed to good sense).

It's time we divorced ourselves from this romantic entanglement and started viewing our businesses as if we just met them. Coldly, clinically, callously. Come in Monday morning as if to a new job, and break the codependency between you and your beloved. And if you need a new outlet to express your inner Cyrano, start writing sonnets on the side.

Contributor Adam Hanft is president of Hanft Raboy & Partners, a Manhattan-based advertising and marketing firm.

Last updated: Mar 1, 2004




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