by Dr. Roger Birkman
(This article was previously published in our monthly newsletter and offers a good explanation of the Advantage Component)
The Birkman Method contains a construct that is called Advantage (now called Incentives). It was known a long time ago as Materialism. Characteristics associated with low scores are idealism, trust, and teamwork (in the sense of a team's worth being recognized rather than the contributions of its individual members). Characteristics associated with high scores are competitiveness, individualized incentive, and concrete rewards.
High Advantage characteristics have always been looked at askance by most people, which is odd when you consider the extent to which our capitalistic society is driven by those very characteristics. As I write, in fact, high Advantage thinking is going through a pretty bad period, and it looks as though it may last for some time. The collapse of Enron and WorldCom, the broadening investigations of various financial concerns by the SEC in the US, and the actions taken recently by Congress to place constraints on the wilder activities of major corporations, all presage a period of even more suspicion of those whose primary motivator seems to be personal gain.
This essay is an attempt to balance your thinking about the Advantage component, and much of that attempt will be based on getting you to take a more open view of people with high Advantage scores.
Firstly, high Advantage people tend to be charming and likeable. We don't list these characteristics in the Needs-at-a-Glance booklet published by Birkman International, but nevertheless it tends to be true. Instinctively, high Advantage people know that the competitive advantage lies with the person who can get on with other people. You can see this very clearly in many sales situations. Whether you buy a product or service depends to a great extent on whether you like, or feel comfortable with, your salesperson. While this is true in the typical consumer situation (when you're buying a car or a house), it becomes even more important where you are buying a product or service on a consistent basis, like supplies for your office or third-party maintenance for your fleet of trucks. Here, the casual relationship between the consumer and the salesperson is replaced by the ongoing relationship between the company buyer and the supplier's account manager. Yet the basis of the relationship is pretty much the same. If you don't like the account manager, you probably won't keep buying the product or service. And the high Advantage account manager naturally responds to the demands of this important relationship. He or she knows it's important to be liked by the customer.
Secondly, high Advantage people don’t -- despite the suspicions of low Advantage people -- like money or other concrete rewards for their own sake. These rewards are much more a way of keeping score. Remember that high Advantage is associated with winning -- and the main way to determine who won is to count who got the most concrete rewards. Not infrequently, once acquired, the money seems to be spent in ways that puzzle low Advantage onlookers. As I write this piece, a $6,000 shower curtain is making the news as an example of conspicuous consumption by a high Advantage executive "gone wrong." Why, we wonder, would anyone want to spend $6,000 on a shower curtain? Well, precisely because it cost $6,000, while your shower curtain probably cost $9.95. If my shower curtain cost six hundred times more than your shower curtain, it's a visible demonstration of the fact that I'm winning.
The recent collapse of certain high-flying companies has illustrated this point again. As the betrayed investors go after the misappropriated assets, all too often they find they've simply disappeared -- spent on products and services whose very extravagance was the reason for their purchase in the first place.
Now, why would I describe this characteristic as an asset? Simply because, once understood, it becomes a valuable means of motivating high Advantage people to higher performance. Low Advantage onlookers think to themselves, Why would she be motivated by further concrete rewards? Doesn't she have enough? Won't she just leave the company and enjoy a comfortable retirement? The answer, in all likelihood, is no. Only a low Advantage person would think like that. Only a low Advantage person would ask, don't I have enough now? For the high Advantage person, there is no enough, because enough is not what concrete rewards are about. To talk about having enough reward would be the same as the new Houston Texans football team talking about having enough points scored in the game. No matter how good you are as a high Advantage achiever, there's always someone better.
(The British have a peculiarly socialistic system for high Advantage rewards at the higher end of society that costs them nothing. If I lived in Britain, worked very hard, made lots of money for the tax man, and was very charming and likeable with some significant politicians, I might find that the Queen had awarded me a knighthood. As a result, I would be able to call myself Sir Roger Birkman. What other rewards accompany a knighthood, you may ask? The answer is: none. No money, no pensions, no lands. And yet many men (and women, who become Dames) use their high Advantage drive to gain this -- singularly useless -- honor.)
Thirdly, high Advantage people see teams primarily as collections of individuals, so they can tend to allow team members individual leeway and even motivate the team by offering individual incentives. Low Advantage people prefer to treat the team as an entity, and sadly a great deal of time can be wasted in those team situations by deferring or omitting actions because "we don't want to hurt Martha's feelings" or "we want to present a united front." I'm convinced that we'd spend far less time in meetings if they were chaired by high, rather than low, Advantage people.
Fourthly, high Advantage people are always looking for the edge, and it's this tendency of theirs that often benefits us all. The competitive edge frequently manifests itself in giving something for less. If you are as old as me, you'll remember when owning a credit card was a mark of distinction. Not everyone could get one; you had to pay an annual fee for it; you had to pay enormously high interest rates on unpaid balances. A nice strategy -- until everyone that deserved the distinction of a credit card owned one. And now came the high Advantage thinking. Suppose that -- instead of being a mark of distinction -- a credit card were to be a commodity? And gradually, that is what happened, as various high Advantage thinkers in different credit card companies tried to outsmart one another. Down came the annual fees -- to zero. Down came the interest rates. Up went the number of mail solicitations I receive. Now I can get frequent flier miles just by using my credit card. All the result of high Advantage thinking. If there are high Advantage thinkers in your company, they can do the same for you.
Finally, there can be an unfortunate tendency to equate trust with low Advantage scorers, and therefore to believe that high Advantage people do not understand trust, or -- even worse -- cannot be trusted. Nothing could be further from the truth. The entire American way of life is predicated on trust in a high Advantage, competitive environment -- on the fact that, where the business deal is concerned, most people are able to trust most people most of the time and come out of the other end of the deal with mutual benefit. By far the majority of our financial, high Advantage exchanges are done on the basis of trust. (In Texas, a verbal handshake deal is still legally binding.) Our legal contracts are in fact drawn up to preclude distrust; very few of them end up being debated in a court of law. The benefit of having high Advantage scores in a trust situation is knowing pretty early in the game when the other person can't be trusted. Low Advantage people are more readily taken advantage of. Nevertheless, it is generally true that, when it comes to trust, a low Advantage person will trust you until you show you can't be trusted; while a high Advantage person will be wary about trusting you until you've shown you can be trusted.
Difference in Advantage scores can lead to a great deal of discomfort when people work together. Low Advantage people tend to see high Advantage people as being aggressive, out for themselves, selfish, short-term thinkers, talking out of both sides of their mouths. And sometimes, unfortunately, that can be true. High Advantage people tend to see low Advantage people as over-idealistic, dreamers, willing to sacrifice profits for principles, focusing overmuch on the product or service rather than the people who buy the product or service. And sometimes, unfortunately, that can be true. But when both low and high Advantage scorers in your company can work together, they can cover all the bases. And the results can be very gratifying.