How distinctions avoid turkey behavior

What if you found yourself in a pie-eating-contest where the first prize is another piece of pie? For many, this resembles the reality of modern corporate leadership. In other words, the better you get, the better you better get, and the reward for solving big problems is the opportunity to solve even bigger problems.

In many cases, the default position to become better is to do more of the same things, or less of the same things. Rarely will we do different things instead. Take, for instance, the recent global financial debt crisis, where the solution was to incur even more debt.

This magical way of thinking is rooted in what Nassim Taleb calls turkey behavior. A turkey is absolutely convinced that the butcher loves it, because it is taken care of and is fed well for approximately twenty months. Then Thanksgiving arrives and the world of the turkey changes dramatically.

If you don’t want to channel your inner turkey, but want to stand apart as a leader like a tall giraffe surrounded by tiny field mice, you need to become aware of the right mindset and behaviors. In my work with high-performance organizations, I have found one very effective way to counter the comforting, yet insidious effects of magical thinking: the surgical precision of distinctions.


A distinction creates a clear boundary between what is and what is not. A powerful distinction, however, does not make the difference between good and bad behavior, but draws the line between hanging on and real acceleration. Take for instance the bromide result-driven. Naturally, no organization likes to be known as a slacker, so result-driven may actually apply to every organization in our known universe (and beyond if you are into that kind of thing). It is therefore not a very good distinction. High-performance leadership requires both awareness and outstanding distinctions instead. Three distinctions will raise the bar and rapidly take you the next level of performance.

Raising the bar

The first essential distinction is between playing to win versus playing not to lose. Think of the last game you have seen, where one team was playing to win, and the other team was playing not to lose. Probably, you would have noticed very different behaviors. One team is focused on the status quo, is actively wasting time and sticks to what works. The other team is changing its approach, uses every second and aggressively tries new things. The same is true in business. For example, the European Union Reach initiative to exhaustively test chemicals for harmful effects before allowing them to be used is seen by many as a blatant and aggressive move to lock out innovation by smaller competitors. Which company will be more attractive to customers: The one that bends legislation to lock out competitors, or the one that is inventing so fast that the competition is unable to keep up?

A second powerful distinction is being committed versus involved. Take for example Volvo: The company is committed to safety and as a result has a consistent stellar record in safety performance. This became especially apparent when in 2012 a new small frontal overlap safety test was introduced by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IHHS). While most competitors fared poorly, Volvo not only aced the new test, but even showed a very good performance with its decade old XC90 model. Commitment is everything. What would happen to your organization if you start pointing out this distinction and help your people to become truly committed to your organizational goals?

A third important distinction is eating your frog versus managing your frog. Eating your frog is a metaphor that means to start your day with doing the thing that you dislike most. Once you have done this, regardless what happens, the rest of the day will be fun and easy. Not only that, but your frog usually represents the thing that will help you most to achieve your biggest goals. Recently, I invited all members of a senior leadership team to put a little plastic frog on their desk. It not only reminded them to have the courage to face their most difficult issue, but became a conversation starter as well. As a result, eating your frog is now a calling card of this organization. A simple metaphor has the power to transform an entire organization. For example, if you put the dead rat on the table, in other words, start a meeting with the thorniest subject, you will get much more effective and shorter meetings.

Distinctive leadership

The biggest myth around building a high-performance culture is the absolute conviction that you will get the new results that you want with existing behaviors that you like. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we have seen is that inspiring new behaviors using clear distinctions can help any organization to rapidly accelerate results. For this, as a leader, you have a wide array of animals at your disposal: a turkey, a giraffe, field mice, a chicken, a pig and a rat. What’s missing here is the frog: This one, of course, has been served for breakfast.

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