Are You an Acquired Taste?
“I can’t help it, it’s just who I am.”
I hear this frequently from clients. They get feedback from a 360 assessment telling them that if they want to advance in their careers they need to change some behaviors. Frequently, they are highly skilled and accomplished, have a long record of success, and have risen to high levels of an organization. But their “act” is starting to grow old—they have alienated one too many people, embarrassed their boss one too many times, or had one more high-level resignation on their team. Senior executives start to talk about replacing them if something doesn’t change.
Matt is a recent example. A successful technical sales leader, Matt is smarter and works harder than anyone else in the division. Customers love him because he understands the technology and understands their needs. They can count on him to meet their timelines with quality solutions.
Inside his company, however, Matt drives people crazy. They admire his brilliance and hunger to win, but his interpersonal style is abrasive and undermining his peers’ willingness to work with him. Complaints about his style are piling up.
“I’ll admit, I can be an acquired taste,” Matt told me. “My style has worked for me and I don’t think I could (or should) change it if I tried. Anyway, I’ve proven myself over and over and my results should speak for themselves.”
Matt’s attitude was based on a number of common arguments:
- He believed that his personality was part of the total package of what made him successful.
- He believed that hitting his sales numbers was enough of a positive to the company that it outweighed the organizational cost in reduced productivity, turnover, and employee dissatisfaction that came from his behavior. He thought that other people should just lighten up and not be offended by his behavior.
- He believed that the company had a moral obligation to keep him in his role out of gratitude for his past contributions.
All these beliefs were wrong.
- As the saying goes, what got you here won’t get you there. We know from biology that that which does not adapt to changes in the environment faces extinction. Adaptability is the one necessary skill for all of us. Today, people expect not to have to work with or for jerks and they will only adapt to you for as long as they have to.
- Increasing costs of organizational disruption will eventually outweigh sales numbers, especially when there are people out there who can make the numbers AND play nicely with others. Very few people are actually irreplaceable and good leaders always have a back-up plan in case a key employee needs to be replaced.
- Organizations have a short memory; the future is what really matters most of the time. Every leader has a responsibility to look at their employees and ask, “Can this person take the company where it needs to go, and, if not, who can?” They shouldn’t be asking, “How can we work around this person?”
Most importantly, Matt was not willing to face that viewing himself as an “acquired taste” is really a way to rationalize away his fear of change. Change is difficult, and no one really likes to do the hard work of changing a behavior. We can cling to our claims that “this is just who I am” and “I shouldn’t have to change,” but doing so comes with consequences.
And those consequences can be summed up pretty simply:
The important thing to remember about “acquired tastes” is that no one has the obligation to acquire them.
We buy, eat, and drink things that we enjoy and we don’t buy, eat, and drink things that we don’t. We spend time with people we like and avoid those we don’t. Consumers buy products that satisfy their needs in the most effective way. Your bosses, your coworkers, and your customers are the ones making purchasing decisions regarding how long they will tolerate your lack of adaptability to the expectations of others.
Acquired tastes are usually niche products, and if you find your niche your unwillingness to change may not undermine you. However, I haven’t seen very many successful products that were not designed to appeal to the buyer, and in 20-plus years of coaching leaders I’ve never seen anyone go wrong by making the efforts to modify their behavior based on valid critical feedback.
You remain an acquired taste at your own peril.