The Paradox of Efficiency

We simultaneously desire maximum efficiency & maximum stability

A short time ago, I wrote a piece titled My Brain is Lazy. In it, I examined the resistance to change that we experience, concluding that we do not resist change; we resist what we consider a threat to our safety. I mentioned in that article that there are many avenues of thought regarding the lazy brain. The avenue we are exploring today is the brain’s inherent desire for efficiency.

 My interest in the lazy brain came in part from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. Part of that book examines both the biology and the anthropology of the brain. Kahneman provides considerable evidence that simple glucose depletion caused by concentration has a significant effect on the brain’s decision-making capacity.

It is this glucose depletion that provides the biological explanation of our desire for efficiency. In primal times, we needed to conserve energy. Any use of energy was a threat to our survival, so we developed a compulsion to complete any task with the minimal expenditure of calories. The brain, more than other organs, uses an inordinate supply of calories to complete any task, especially when problem-solving. That naturally leads us to attempt to find the simplest solution to any problem.

Ultimately, the brain only wants to feel safe. It wants the primal, limbic brain to be in repose. It does not want to feel threatened. This is why we often prefer simple solutions to complex issues. It is simply far too exhausting for the brain to delve more deeply. We settle for solving a symptom rather than a root cause.

At ExecuVision International we often see this in organizations. Companies develop a process to solve the problem at hand. Once they have created the new solution, and it has finally been accepted, they resist going further. The current solution solves the immediate need. To further examine the overall process, and how it integrates with other, existing processes is dangerous.

Dangerous? Why? Because once we begin examining process, we discover that much of what we are doing is replicative and inefficient. If we begin to pull at each inefficient thread, we unwind the whole ball of yarn. We know, inherently that the ball of yarn is not producing the results we desire, but the challenge of questioning everything is perceived by the limbic brain as an existential threat to our own value to the organization. We decide to ignore the real, deeper issue, the solution to which would require a major investment of brain energy.

Not surprisingly, our desire for maximum efficiency brings with it an accompanying distaste for bureaucracy. Our dislike of bureaucracy is that it inherently opposes the most efficient use of our energy. It is experienced by the amygdala as a threat. This is the paradox: We simultaneously desire maximum efficiency and maximum stability in our daily lives.

This rejection of bureaucracy also explains the visceral reaction to being kept on hold by customer service. It explains our anger and frustration of waiting in line. It explains our hatred of filling out repetitive forms in the doctor’s office. Our brain experiences all these delays as a waste of precious energy that the brain believes threatens our very existence.

What does this mean for you and your organization? The direct implication is that people who are operating in an inefficient organization will automatically resist the inefficiency of bureaucracy. Their energy will be diverted from the task at hand to speculation about the time they are wasting. The human mind, of course, never speculates in the positive. The human mind spends its time assessing threats. Inefficiency fundamentally threatens every member of the organization: First, as a primal reaction against waste of energy; Second, as a realization that inefficient organizations cannot survive in a dynamic, rapidly changing world.

You may see this in your own organization. Think of:

  • unproductive meetings
  • the lack of clarity regarding the corporate vision
  • repetitive tasks, perhaps well-executed, but the goals of which are unclear
  • the lack of role clarity in jobs, both for yourself and for those to whom you report

The resulting frustration stems from the basic paradox the brain experiences – the primal need for efficiency opposed to the innate desire for security.

All modern organizations are forced to address this paradox. They must create a dynamic atmosphere that embraces change, while recognizing that people will resist any change that threatens their safety. Successful companies build organizations built on trust, commitment, efficiency, and a willingness to adjust to the demands of a rapidly changing world.

How well does your organization measure up to this challenge?

David Belden, Professional Outsider

David Belden, Professional Outsider

David Belden lived abroad for 30 years, successfully completing 5 startups and 3 major turnarounds internationally.

For over 20 years, ExecuVision International has helped companies create organizations where every employee is encouraged to contribute at their highest level of ability.

This Post Has 21 Comments

  1. Sanjay Aikat

    Superb piece again David….very insightful!

    1. admin

      Thanks, Sanjay. I appreciate your comments.

  2. Holly Latty-Mann

    Great article, David. Reminds me a bit of what I call the law of polarities, where more can be less, and less can be more.

    1. admin

      Thanks, Holly. Yes, we all have to deal with the paradoxes in life.

  3. Keith


    What a thought provoking post indeed! I didn’t know the brain used an inordinate amount of calories..I guess this is why chess players are so svelte!

    It’s often easier to be reactive to problems within an rather than being proactive in addressing the root cause…

    1. admin


      Deep thinking is probably what keeps you so fit!

  4. Gustavo Grodnitzky

    Great piece, David! I very much appreciate your tie-in to biology… Well done!

    1. admin

      Thanks, Gustavo. That means a lot coming from you.

  5. Beth Berman

    Great job! You not only made the science accessible, you simplified it into powerful leadership lessons.

    1. admin

      Thanks, Beth. I glad you enjoyed it.

  6. John Trakselis

    Superb article David. Daniel Kahneman caught my attention awhile ago. You have applied it very well at the organizational level.

    1. admin


      Kahneman has some incredible research and observation. I’m not crazy about his writing style, but love the content.

  7. Shekhar Mehra

    Interesting piece David. Gives the rationale behind the overwhelming tendency in some organisations / cultures /locations to interpret safety and stability as engaging no more than smoothing over the wrinkles, perhaps going to the extent of giving a smooth plaster to cover the gritty bumps and unseemly gaps — but no further.

    However, those careful delicate touches overlook checking whether those gaps are actually cracks, brought on by structural defects / structural weakness

    Would addressing only symptoms provide any stability and security?

    What about the recurrence factor?

    Two elements put together will always CONTINUE to produce a certain outcome.

    If there is Fire, no patchwork would bring security and safety as long as it keeps getting fuel and oxygen.

    What would you choose to do with that ball of thread?

    Are you REALLY safe leaving those threads alone?

    Think of it this way– if you have weeds in your garden, what happens when you
    a) cover them with other foliage
    b) chop off their tops so that the surface doesn’t look unseemly

    A long term solution can be had only by removing from the roots.

    To get back to your analogy of saving energy to survive, and hence not going beyond surface symptoms. Limiting engagement with issues to only the symptoms is ok only if you are a nomad, and do not expect to return to the same place ever again

    But if you are tied to the location, conserving energy means NOT HAVING TO FACE THE SAME PROBLEM AGAIN. That is what would provide security.

    Hunter-gatherer / Nomad’s concept of safety Vs Farmer/Settler’s concept of it .

    1. admin


      Yes, dealing with root causes rather than symptoms is hard and uncomfortable…and so much more rewarding in the end.

  8. Judith

    Timely. I just spent 45 minutes on the phone with our credit union trying to resolve their mistake, conveyed to me in a rather nasty letter threatening my credit rating. I must have used several hundred calories, so it is a good thing that I ate that strawberry shortcake later. This is a good reminder to finish Kahneman’s book, which I started 6 years ago! Thanks for your brain research and analysis. Helpful.

    1. admin


      Thanks. I love it.

  9. Karl Sprague

    David, a great post on the brain and how the paradox of efficiency and survival shows up in businesses. It helps explain how things get fuzzy and inefficient over time in organizations. Hopefully your post creates a level of corporate self-awareness in leaders who read this. Well done!

    1. admin

      Thanks, Karl. I have used these concepts in the more than 400 companies I have worked with over the past 20 years. Some of them take it very seriously, and others, unfortunately, not so much.

  10. Reji Kuruvilla


    Just loved the way the whole paradox of efficiency has been portrayed. and i would love to see you throwing more light on this following phrase “Successful companies build organizations built on trust, commitment, efficiency, and a willingness to adjust to the demands of a rapidly changing world.”

    These attributes of TRUST and COMMITMENT are everyday words thrown to our ears but remains a paradox that requires deeper understanding.

    Would love to see an article on how organization “defines” and “should define” trust and commitment.

  11. Rich Jacobs

    It has been a long time since our paths have crossed. I was TEC/Vistage chair in Central Ohio from 1999-2015. Have moved to Minnesota in 2019 where I was plt. eng. and plt. mgr. at Brockway Glass plant #8 in the 60s. I co-authored 5 books over the past 20 or so years. Now confine my mentoring to work with leadership teams on “How to Manage” which has been put in book form as a leadership manual to one of my long time clients in Ohio.
    Rich Jacobs

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