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The Heisenberg Rules: What HR Can Learn from Breaking Bad (#1 - Acknowledge High Performance)

Capitalist Note - I finally got around to binge-watching the former AMC hit Breaking Bad on Netflix, which follows high school chemistry teacher Walter White's journey through a lung cancer diagnosis and his subsequent turn to becoming a world-class meth producer.  This series (The Heisenberg Rules) represents what I was reminded of as a HR leader by Breaking Bad.  If you haven't seen the series, you can view a synopsis by clicking here. Spoilers abound in this series.

Rule #1 in the Heisenberg Rules is ACKNOWLEDGE HIGH PERFORMANCE:

The biggest transformation you'll find in Breaking Bad is the growing confidence of Walter White (WW). Once a high school chemistry teacher working a Walter_Whitesecond job where he's routinely berated by a car wash owner with a unibrow and 3 fewer degrees that what he holds, Walt's transformation into a capable meth producer delivers one important outcome - he's now good at something the world values and will pay for - even if it's highly illegal.

As WW explores how to best make meth, the following things occur in a pretty rapid fashion:

--He learns that his background in chemistry makes him uniquely qualified to produce the product, including a purity level unmatched by any other producers.

--The world displays that it will pay large amounts of money for his product.

--He learns that the people who know about his talent treat him with a form of respect that has rarely felt since college.  Of course, they're criminals, but that respect has been something that's been missing in WW's life for years.

Breaking Bad goes to great lengths early in the series to show Walter White as an emasculated man.  He doesn't earn a great living, his family takes him for granted and a key relationship - his DEA brother-in-law "Hank" - is cast as an alpha male to show the contrast.

As a result of WW's emergence as an expert, his confidence grows, but so does his frustration.  His new identity is hidden from his family for much of the show, which results in him having to do things like provide a cover for how he pays for his top grade cancer treatment - relying on a lie that former college friends (now rich) are paying the bills rather than disclosing that his earnings from meth production are the source of payment.

Through it all, Walter White smolders at the continuing emasculation.  He's treated as a bit player by his own family and an object of pity as he earns hundreds of thousands of dollars - in secret.

Eventually, Walter's wife becomes aware of his new life as America's top meth producer. While that's a story arc of its own, it's an important contributor to WW's frustration.

Skyler (Walter's wife) is rightfully fearful of what's going on.  But she never really turns the corner to acknowledge what's in front of her - that the emasculated man that's been the object of pity actually has skills that will result in a ultimate stockpile of 10 million dollars.

What's the tie in to the world of HR and talent?  It's pretty simple.  We routinely error in our companies by failing to do the following:

--recognize what individuals are best at and what makes them unique from a performance perspective.

--use references to what people are best at when we are coaching them on things they need to improve on.

--understanding the need for recognition - about true high performance, however small it may be in some cases - provides a deep connection that will deliver many managers through difficult circumstances with the employees who report to them.

I was reminded by Breaking Bad that failing to stop and acknowledge when someone really kicks ass (not in a public way, but 1-on-1) is a missed opportunity and is probably at the core of a lot of relationship dysfunction in the workplace.

I'll leave you with a final thought.  Let's say you have a problematic employee you're coaching in a lot of areas.  The one thing she's good at is being aggressive towards people who aren't getting things done and forcing them to act.  She's a bit of a bully, but damn - she get get results in that circumstance.

Of course, what makes her great there serves as a relationship noose everywhere else.  She's a one-trick pony, trying to bully everyone all the time.

Why not acknowledge her super skill in getting people to get things done (only using in limited circumstances) while coaching her on her crass, abrasive personality everywhere else?

Acknowledge high performance where you can, even if some view it as negative.  It's the bridge to coach the same person where it really matters.

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