“It starts with a small decision.”
Walter Pavlo had earned a master’s degree in finance from Mercer University in Macon, Ga. and was a discontented senior manager at MCI Communications when he started taking advantage of the company’s lax accounting standards. He is talking about small decisions he made over the course of time and a path of dishonesty and fraud that resulted in a $6 million crime and two years in prison.
Post-prison, Pavlo works with organizations and business schools to help others avoid the path he traveled. He makes the following point:
“It starts with a small decision that incrementally got worse and worse. You tell yourself your intentions are good at first, but then you find yourself in a place you don’t recognize…it’s tough to get back.”
The path to corruption starts with a single step – usually a small one that seems like no one is getting hurt and there are no consequences.
Actions have outcomes. Behaviors have consequences. We can see how a series of small bad decisions and behaviors add up to enormous negative consequences.
So it is with small good decisions. While small behaviors and actions may not seem to have a meaningful impact and may not seem to have consequences, they do. This truth is hard for us to remember when we are inclined to believe that the big win comes from the big action. It is small behaviors carried out consistently over time that represent competitive advantage for modern organizations.
The snowball effect
The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life is a biography written by Wall Street Analyst Alice Schroeder on the world’s most famous investor. Snowball is a metaphor for describing the law of compound returns – the core investment concept for how wealth grows over time. A small snowball rolling downhill gathers mass, which increases speed, which continues to increase mass. The longer the hill – the larger the snowball grows. In investment terms – the longer the runway before retirement, the greater the opportunity to benefit from the law of compound returns.
The same law applies to human interactions. Over time, our actions and behaviors consistently carried out multiply and ultimately become our brand. If they are positive human interactions, the brand is a positive one. If they are negative, so goes the brand.
Sweat the small stuff
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and it’s all Small Stuff is one of the Don’t Sweat series of best-selling books by author Richard Carlson, Ph.D. Carlson, a recognized expert on stress reduction and happiness, inspires people to keep from getting bogged down with little things in life. The ability to manage stress, calm ourselves down and achieve balance is a goal worth attaining.
Sadly, the sentiment of not sweating the small stuff, intended to preserve physical and emotional health, has a dark side.
Minimizing or rationalizing the effect of small things is a recipe for disaster, as Walter Pavlo learned when his small dishonest actions added up to a serious crime and prison sentence. Similarly, minimizing the impact of small positive things can lead individuals and organizations to miss important opportunities.
Leaders are wise to contemplate the small decisions that are made daily in the areas of the business entrusted to their care and foster a culture that focuses on getting the little things right consistently.
Taking pains with the wording in an email to a client, matters. Pausing and reconsidering before texting a potentially offensive joke, matters. Struggling with the best way to express our gratitude to a colleague, matters. Wrestling with the various ways our message may be received by our boss, matters. Rehearsing how we are going to talk to our child about values, matters. It’s all seemingly small stuff and it matters.
- Ro Crosbie is president of Tero International, a premier interpersonal skills and corporate training company.