I can’t believe I had never heard of the Dirty Bird Theory of Organizational Development until a couple weeks ago. It was explained to me by a retired policeman who also served in the military.
As soon as I heard the Dirty Bird Theory, I realized it applies to every organization I have ever been a part of.
The Dirty Bird
Here’s how it goes…
You are a leader with 10 soldiers in your unit. Four of the soldiers are outstanding, three are pretty solid day in, day out, and three are less than satisfactory. Of the three poor performers, one is a hot mess; always deficient and always causing trouble for the unit.
If the leader chooses not to do anything about the screw-up, the other two marginal performers decide there is more fun to be had in following the example of the screw-up so they too become complete screw-ups.
Now the leader has four outstanding soldiers, three solid performers, and three screw-ups.
After a little while, the three solid performers realize they are working hard but the screw-ups are doing nothing. Since nothing is happening to them the three solid performers decide it’s no longer worth expending the effort to be a great performer.
Now the leader has four outstanding performers and six soldiers who are screwing up on a regular basis.
When it comes time to re-enlist, the four outstanding soldiers are fed up and decide to leave the unit because they don’t want to be associated with a group of slackers.
Now the leader has to replace the four outstanding soldiers with new recruits. The four new recruits are surrounded by six screw-ups and quickly learn to perform at sub-standard levels.
The leader who had one screw-up now has a full unit of ten screw-ups all because he refused to take action with the one original screw up.
This is the Dirty Bird Theory of Organizational Development. The result of not attending to the one “dirty bird” eventually yielded an entire unit of screw ups.
Change the Narrative
If we flip the narrative around, we see a completely different outcome.
Assume once again you are a leader with 10 soldiers in your unit. Four of the soldiers are outstanding, three are pretty solid day in, day out, and three are less than satisfactory. Of the three poor performers, one is a hot mess; always deficient and always causing trouble for the unit.
Instead of ignoring the screw-up, you reassign him to a position that is more aligned to his skill sets or you get rid of him completely.
Now you have nine soldiers; four are outstanding, three are pretty solid, and two that are less than satisfactory. But, the two poor performers see what happened to the screw-up and they work harder because they don’t want to be the next one shown the door. Now you have four outstanding soldiers and six who are pretty solid.
You bring in a tenth soldier and he hears what happened to the screw-up. He doesn’t want that to happen to him so he works hard emulating the four outstanding soldiers.
Now you have five outstanding soldiers and five pretty solid soldiers. The five pretty solid soldiers see even the new guy succeeding along with the other outstanding soldiers and they work harder to be better.
The odds of all five of the pretty solid soldiers all becoming outstanding soldiers is low but they are all working harder than ever and reaching goals they never thought possible before.
The leader who attended to the lone dirty bird right away now has a high performing unit of five outstanding soldiers and five who are trying harder than ever to be the best they can be.
It Happened to Me
At the mid-point of my career at Procter & Gamble, I was offered an opportunity to switch from sales management to marketing management. I attended my first quarterly meeting of marketing managers even before I was officially in the role.
At this meeting, our executive vice-president of marketing stood up in front of a room of 140 or so marketers and said, “If you don’t love this work, leave, and go find something else to do. In fact, leave now.”
I was shocked. Never before had I heard any manager, let alone a senior executive, tell people to get with the program or leave, literally right now.
But, he went on to explain that life is too short to short-change yourself by doing work you don’t love. So for your own sake and the sake of the organization, find work you love and go do it!
This executive was putting an important Biblical principle into practice. Paul, writing to the Colossians admonished them saying, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23).
Whatever work you are doing, work with all you heart because you are working for the Lord. Your example to other workers is one way you can honor the Lord for the blessings and talents He has given you.
If you are a leader, it is your duty to the organization you lead to make that organization as highly skilled as possible. You can’t do that if you let one “dirty bird” bring down the performance of the rest of the group.
Paul said it well when he told the Galatians, “A little yeast leavens the whole lump of dough” (Galatians 5:9). One “dirty bird” can end up ruining an entire organization.
Join the Conversation
As always, questions and comments are welcome. Have you worked in an organization where one “dirty bird” brought down the performance of the whole group? If so what happened?
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Category: Skills | Leadership Development