Does It Pay To Be An Extremist In Business?

Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow make it work for them in media. But business is a completely different story.
President, Proximo, LLC
May 16, 2011

Extremism is pervasive in today’s popular culture. We are almost at a point whereby having an extremist position is the only way to get attention. Cable news channels that take an extreme position (left or right) are doing far better in ratings than those considered to be middle of the road. The business success of “talking heads” such as Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann isn’t due to their temperate manner and balanced perspective. It seems that we are caught in a vicious circle where extremism is rewarded and is therefore matched or exceeded by competitors.

Thinking about this in a business context, does it pay to be an extremist? Or is it something that only works in media? In business I think extremism is generally bad.

Three types of bad extremism

Some types of extremism are poisonous to the culture of any business. If you are guilty of these types of extremism then you need to deal with it. Immediately.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism is the most lethal form of extremism in business. In case life hasn’t taught you this lesson yet, nothing on earth is perfect; everything can always be improved. Assuming that building the perfect prototype, preparing the perfect pitch, making the perfect contract is attainable will drive you crazy. You will lose tremendous amounts of time trying to achieve something that cannot be achieved. You have to accept that many times “good enough” really is just that. This isn’t a justification for sloppiness or laziness. That’s how a perfectionist would interpret it. Perfectionists not only harm themselves, but they harm those around them. In the eyes of a perfectionist, no one is good enough, no one works hard enough and no one performs as expected. It’s demoralizing. After a while, no one will want to work with you (or frankly even be around you).

Stubborness

Some people are extreme in their stubbornness. Once they have an idea that they believe in, listening to others is no longer an option. They refuse to consider opinions contrary to their beliefs. If you are the owner of your company, you can get away with this indefinitely, but it may eventually lead to the failure of your business. No one is sufficiently brilliant to master all areas of business without input from others. The most successful businesspeople in the world have extraordinary teams of brilliant people surrounding them. If Bill Gates needs help, then yes, so do you.

Opinionated

You may enjoy watching Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann on television, but imagine working with them on a day-to-day basis. When I say "them," I’m not talking about them as individuals but instead I’m talking about their on-screen personas. I’m sure off camera they are different. The on -creen personas have very strong opinions, which they express in a very direct and aggressive manner. Anyone that disagrees with them is considered the proverbial enemy. Behaving this way in a business context is unacceptable. You need to build consensus and persuade those that may disagree with you to support you. You can’t achieve cooperation with such a confrontational tone. This tone will also drown out any valid points you may have.

Cures for bad extremism

If you suffer from any of these types of bad extremism, what can you do?

First, make a conscious decision to change your bad behavior. If you don’t acknowledge the problem and choose to address it, you won’t change.

Second, develop a “mental filter." Most people have one. But if you suffer from one of these forms of extremism, your filter is defective or nonexistent. Before telling an employee about an imperfection or telling someone to keep their point of view to themselves, think about the impact of your words. Are they relevant to the business at hand? Will they make a material enhancement to the work product? What is the cost of saying something versus keeping quiet?

Third, hire good people and keep them close. Create an environment in which they feel comfortable telling you when you are wrong. You can’t always count on your judgment as you transition from extremism. These people can serve as your lifelines.

Fourth, take your own medicine. For a reality check, spend time with people that suffer from your ailments. Spend a day with a room full of perfectionists, extremely stubborn people or those that can’t keep their opinions to themselves. See how you like it!

President, Proximo, LLC