Is alcoholism a disease or a character flaw?

I’m reading Ron Chernow’s Grant, a useful complement to Grant’s own personal memoirs. Grant’s memoirs are a must-read for leaders of all stripes, whether or not you have any interest in the Civil War. It’s also, fortunately enough, compellingly readable — so much so that Chernow’s book would be unnecessary except for three elements Grant didn’t write about:

(1) Read Grant’s memoirs and you’ll discover who he was. Chernow tries to explain why he was who he was. (2) Grant didn’t mention his presidency, which was more distinguished than most of us know, possibly because his throat cancer killed him a week after he delivered his manuscript. And (3) Grant did not mention his struggle with alcoholism, even though it played a prominent role in his personal history.

In your career as a leader and as a manager, it’s a statistical certainty you’ll find yourself dealing with substance-abusing employees. And while it’s doubtful any of them will bring as much drive and ability to their responsibilities as Grant did to his, the odds are better than even that most are capable of being valuable employees.

As a manager, how you deal with a substance-abusing employee is reasonably straightforward: You contact Human Resources and have them walk you through your responsibilities and boundaries. Or, you ignore the substance abuse and focus on job performance, on the grounds that as a manager your job is to get work out the door, in large part by making sure the men and women in your organization get their work out the door.

As a manager, if other employees complain to you about the situation, you ask whether it affects their ability to do their own work.

As a leader your responsibilities are considerably more complicated than that. I think your response has to start with the disease vs character flaw question.

I confess I’m old and judgmental enough that it’s hard to jettison the perception that addicts are weak-willed, pathetic when they aren’t harming anyone else, and bad people when they drive while under the influence.

Reinforcing this bias are those who find ways to overcome their addictions: If they can, why can’t everyone else? Which isn’t a fair assessment, as there’s no way of knowing whether someone who can’t has less willpower or a more profound compulsion.

Also reinforcing my bias: Research showing significant neurophysiological differences between psychopaths and the rest of us. I say reinforcing because I’m just not quite ready to say, to myself or anyone else, “Aw, that poor sociopath. If only he had a better amygdala! I feel for him.”

No, I don’t. Maybe I should, but I don’t.

The deeper we dig into the root causes of human behavior, the harder it is to differentiate between character flaws and psychological syndromes. Maybe that’s good. It’s certainly gives you as a leader a reason to fall back on the managerial solution of I don’t care who you are, just how you act while you’re on the job.

And yet.

One of my regrets is an employee I inherited when I took over a department early in my managerial career. He was an alcoholic, on the wagon when he first started reporting to me.

Then he started drinking again — moderately at first, but for a recovering alcoholic, moderation isn’t stable.

But he was what we now call a high-functioning alcoholic. His work performance remained satisfactory, and so I never once had a frank discussion with him about his drinking. It eventually killed him.

What would that conversation have entailed?

Not threats. He was doing his job well enough. Not “Speaking as your friend,” because he wasn’t my friend. We were friendly, but we weren’t the kind of close that gave me the right to discuss personal matters.

I’m pretty sure I should have let him know I was aware of the situation. I’m certain I should have reminded him that if he ever wanted help, the company had an employee assistance program and made sure he knew how to make use of it.

But he was an adult, and as an adult he had the right to make his own choices, whether or not they were choices I agreed with.

Life is all about choices. One of the interesting things about choices is that while we can and do make them, life doesn’t always let us choose what we have to make choices about.

So while it’s true that an alcoholic can choose to respond to their alcoholism by being a drunk, or by abstaining, that’s different from those of us who don’t have to make that choice in the first place.

Once upon a time I worked with a company whose numbers were, so far as I could tell, unreliable.

Not unreliable as in a rounding error. Not unreliable as in having to place asterisks in the annual report.

Unreliable as in a billion dollars a month in unaudited transactions being posted to the general ledger through improvised patch programs that gathered data from an ancient legacy system in which the “source of truth” rotated among three different databases.

Our client’s executive team assured us their financial reportage was squeaky clean. The employees we interviewed who were closer to the action, in contrast, predicted a future need for significant, embarrassing, and high-impact balance-sheet corrections.

Assuming you consider multiple billions of dollars to be significant and embarrassing, not to mention high impact, a few years later the employees were proven right.

How do these things happen? It’s more complicated than you might think. A number of factors are in play, none easy to overcome. Among them:

Confirmation bias: We all tend to accept without question information that reinforces our preferences and biases, while nit-picking to death sources that contradict them. Overcoming this — a critical step in creating a culture of honest inquiry — starts with the CEO and board of directors, and requires vigilant self-awareness. If you need an example of why leading by example matters, and how leader behavior drives the business culture, look no further.

Ponzi-ness: Ponzi schemes — where investment managers use new investor money to pay off longer-term investors instead of using it to, well, invest — often don’t start out as fraudulent enterprises launched by nefarious actors.

My informal sampling suggests something quite different: Most begin with an investment manager making an honest if overly risky bet. Then, rather than fessing up to the investors whose investments have shrunk, they find new investors, putting their funds into bets that are even more risky in the hopes of enough return to pay everyone off and get a clean start.

It’s when that attempt fails that Ponzi-ness begins.

Middle managers aren’t immunized against this sort of behavior. It’s how my former client got into trouble. A manager sponsored the effort to replace the creaky legacy system. Part of the business case was that this would replace a cumbersome, expensive, and error-prone month-end process with one more streamlined and efficient.

When the legacy replacement didn’t happen on schedule the manager was still on the hook for the business case, leading him to turn off the maintenance spigot — hence the need for improvised transaction posting programs.

Delivering pretend benefits by increasing risk is the essence of Ponzi-ness.

View altitude and failed organizational listening: Management knows how the business is supposed to work. They are, in general, several steps removed from how it actually works, depending on lower-level managers to keep them informed, who rely on front-line supervisors to keep them informed, who in turn rely on the employees who report to them to make sure (that is, provide the illusion) that they know What’s Going On Out There.

Executives enjoy the view from 100,000 feet; middle managers from 50,000. Smart ones recognize their views are at best incomplete and probably inaccurate, so they establish multiple methods of “organizational listening” to compensate.

Those who skip levels to direct the action are, rightly, called micromanagers. And yet, everyone below them in the management hierarchy has a personal incentive to keep bad news and their manager as far apart as they can. The solution is to recognize the difference between expressing interest in What’s Going On Out There and needing to direct it.

Managers should listen to everyone they can, but instruct only those who report to them directly.

Holding people accountable: As discussed in this space numerous times and detailed in Leading IT, managers who have to hold people accountable have hired the wrong people. The right people are those who take responsibility. Managers never have to hold them accountable because they handle that little chore themselves.

But those who have bought into the hold ’em accountable mantra effectively block the flow of What They Need to Know because why on earth would anyone risk telling them?

If something is amiss in an organization, someone in it knows that something is wrong, and usually knows what to do about it.

What they too-often lack is an audience that wants to know about the problem, and, as a consequence, has no interest in the solution.