Wednesday, July 28, 2004

The Big Unit, The Medium Unit, or
Immaturity vs. Dignity  

Frequently in an organization, a key contributor is both a high-performer who makes the team better and an eccentric who can make his teammates wonder what planet he just beamed in from.

Case in point: Randy Johnson, former Montréal Expo, former Seattle Mariner, former Houston Astro, and now, possibly, soon-to-be former Arizona Diamondback. Super-talented (5 Cy Young awards..both leagues, 8 strikeout titles...both leagues, 9 time All-Star selection). Super-immature.

Counterpoint, in case: My acquaintance, TJ, The Medium Unit. I'll get back to Johnson in a little, but more often than not, the individuals that add quotidian value to their workplaces get overlooked and bypassed for praise, promotions and public recognition simply because they don't actively demand it.


The Medium Unit, known to his buddies as TJ, is a classic case, a mid-30s techie generalist who works for a large high-tech organization. He's quiet, very modest, intelligent, easygoing, presentably good looking (not so remarkable as to intimidate other males), knows how to talk with both males and females, well-educated and less-than-well-educated people, believes in hard work and does it.

He came in as an entry-level rookie and soon proved himself, got promoted a few times and then got stuck. A generalist seeking new challenges, he became too valuable in his current niche position and got welded to the spot. He actually had transferred away when his boss came to him and asked him, "what would you think about moving back to your previous post? They could really use you right now". TJ replied, "I'd rather stay here". "Uh, {insert long uncomfortable pause here} well, I already agreed The decision has been made, and you're going back," replied his incompetent boss. ASIDE: High-tech companies are filled with managers who are this grossly incompetent; you already know never to offer someone a choice you're unwilling or unable to give them. Well, all kinds of companies, actually, have these Tom Runnells quality botch-boys, but high-tech draws a lot of poorly-socialised individuals because the core work is more involved with inanimate objects than it is w/people, so many people without good human skills gravitate to it, and because all human system tend to be self-amplifying, over time, a disproportionate number of people w/o human skills become managers in such shops.

So TJ got transferred back, and because he doesn't make waves and is a good citizen he's stuck, perhaps as long as he's at this company. It's not a tragedy or a meltdown, but it is a waste of human talent because by letting him lie fallow, his organization is losing torque force. Many enthusiasts for the free-agent nation will argue it's his "fault" because he's not standing up for himself. This, btw, is a total crock and counter-productive to the company; if you ever hear someone assert this point, it's a great indicator that he's functionally a workplace sociopath who should be ignored. Can you imagine someone suggesting David Ortíz should bat 9th and not in the middle of the Red Sox line-up because he didn't campaign to bat 3rd or clean-up? It's management's job to make use of the resources at hand, and faulting someone productive for not agitating reflects the neuroses of the faulter.


Randy Johnson, on the other hand, will agitate in his self-interest. Incomparably talented, incompletely-matured, Johnson will be able to get what he wants for himself, while his team's management and teammates pay varying prices.

With the interlague trade deadline approaching, pressure to make deals is high. It's more a cognitive barrier than an actual one -- teams can trade after the deadline but the adminsitrative overhead goes up a little. It's become a Stonehenge-style Druid ritual that lots of trades happen the last half o July because of this, most especially with teams no longer in playoff contention trading current value to contenders for future value or financial advantage.

Johnson, because he's an outstanding, marvelous, world-beating starter and because he's on a team-way-way-out of contention, was an object of discussion. At first, he didn't want to be traded, because he lives in Arizona, he likes living there, he only has a few years left for his career, the living is easy and the cotton is high because of water subsidized by the taxpayers in some perverse form of socialism that guarantees degradation of the environment in exchange for some expensive cotton for which demand is uneven.

Then he said he was willing to be traded to help the team, but was happy to stay. Then, apparently, cognitive dissonance set in to The Big Unit's primitive consciousness.

According to this story linked from Baseball Primer, Johnson now is being Mr. Pouty because the Snakes aren't trading him fast enough.

"If you don't trade him to the Yankees, you're going to have one unhappy player," Meister said.

"And how would I tell the difference?" Garagiola responded.

{SNIP} Johnson has been extremely ornery around his teammates in recent weeks, going so far as to shove popular team leader Luis Gonzalez against a water cooler, and although his mood lightened over the weekend, some believe he's been attempting to force his way off the team with his behavior. Unhappy he wasn't getting a contract extension from the Mariners in 1998, Johnson began fighting with teammates in the days before the club traded him that season.

Johnson, as a 99th percentile athletic achiever, has probably been given a free pass, even rewarded, most of his life for acting out. In '98 he apparently sandbagged his team, the Mariners with inconsistent, unremarkable usually adequate performances after five years of excellence, performing at about 8% better than league average. Traded at the end of July to the Houston Astros, he blistered the National League for 11 starts, exceeding even his past excellence with some super-human über-excellence worthy of a Leni Riefenstahl short-subject. It may be The Bugged Unit, being bothered by his contract status was just too emotionally fragile to pitch his usual transcendant games, or it could be he was punishing his parents for not giving him what he wanted.

Every time Johnson gets rewarded for his behavior, of course, it reinforces his internal programming and management/parents undermine the will of fellow players/siblings to act in ways that are mutually-beneficial.


Yes, it's true that all organizations need to make some exceptions for the exceptional contributors. Smart management will be able to figure out ways to do this without setting a ridiculous example. But there are more The Medium Units available to give your organization good torque force than there are The Big Units.

How many TJs are there in your organization being under-appreciated and under-used and reinforcing in fellow-players' minds the idea that management doesn't know the difference or doesn't care? And how much does that knowledge undermine performance a little (or more) over a wide swath of staff?

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