The Sisyphus Syndrome

The Sisyphus Syndrome

Sisyphus is a character from Greek mythology. He was a trickster and full of deceit who offended the Gods. As a punishment for his trickery, Sisyphus was ordered to push a rock up a hill. Each time he reached the top, the rock rolled to the bottom. He was condemned to an eternity of pushing the same rock up the same hill. Over and over, up and down—forever, which ended up consigning Sisyphus to an eternity of useless efforts and unending frustration.

For many corporate employees, it is the same story. They start pushing the rock up the hill in the morning and exert themselves until evening, only to find it back at the bottom of the hill the next morning. Sisyphus is alive. The collective effort of employees under the ‘Sisyphus syndrome’ is a company that doesn’t do well and struggles to make a profit. As Jim Collins points out in his book “Good to Great”, these are companies that find themselves in the doom loop. Bad results lead to bad decisions that again lead to more bad results and on and on. Over the years, we have all heard about the difference between the ‘Urgent’ and the ‘Important’. Yet, many people find themselves battling the ‘Urgent’ on a daily basis rather than focusing on the ‘Important’. The need to douse that fire consumes a lot of energy of executives, leaving them with little juice to even think about what the future can be if the important things were executed. What these executives do not realize is that if they do not plant the seeds for the future today, the fires will only grow and consume them one day.

So, going back to the doom loop, these companies have new leaders, new mantras, structural changes and change in direction every year, year after year and they find that they do not achieve their goals and the loop is set in motion again. These are ‘problem centred’ organizations that are moving away from what they don’t want. They become reactive and step into a fire fighting mode of working and the climate inside such organizations is one of worry and stress.

Contrast this with the flywheel, which is a metaphor for actions that take long and take strenuous efforts in the beginning to gain momentum; but once they pick up speed, they fly without any effort. The essence of the flywheel is focus and for this, what companies need to understand is their ‘core purpose’, the reason they exist. If all the people in the organization are aware of this, the energy is focused and they push the flywheel in unison, in the same direction. They then become ‘outcome centred’ organizations that have a clear vision of where they are heading. The climate here is one of energy and excitement as the employees are working towards what they really want.

So, why is direction lacking in companies? Is there really too much pressure on company executives to perform? to make the quarterly numbers? to take the stock prices higher and therefore they seek quick short term results rather consistent long term results? Have they taken the line “Greed is Good” from ‘Wall Street’ to heart and do not want to sow the seeds today for a later harvest that will see the crop grow with flourish on its own? Or is it just plain bravado and good old ego that prevents these executives from looking into the mirror and accept reality? The sad thing is, such leaders also imbue their employees with the same ethos and finally run the organization aground. It takes a visionary leader to see that investors would rather prefer gains over the long term.

It takes long to become an ‘overnight success’. But success will surely elude the unfocused and the inconsistent.

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