Don’t Push Employees to Change

Don't Push Employees to Change One of managers’ most common complaints relates to their failure to persuade their employees to change.

Having high expectations of employees can lead to bitter disappointment. The frustration that comes from employees not wanting to change causes many managers to focus on their employees’ negative qualities. Such an attitude makes it easy to find errors in employee behavior, leading to more disappointment—even resentment.

Even when an employee wants to change, he often fails to because he is pulled in two directions: by a motivation to change and by a motivation to maintain the status quo. Since change is seldom as easy as we think it will be, the motivation to maintain the status quo often triumphs.

The real reason employees (and people in general) don’t change is that underneath each employee’s commitment to change, he has an underlying, even stronger commitment to something else, as identified his intrinsic motivation.

Employees Resistant to Change For instance, an employee who expresses a desire to earn a promotion may avoid tougher assignments on his current job because he may be anxious about not measuring up. This employee may not even be fully aware of his own opposition. Therefore, managers are best served by understanding what truly motivates (and limits) each employee—i.e. his elements of intrinsic motivation. Only then can managers, through coaching and feedback, impel the employee to change by channeling the levers of extrinsic motivation (rewards, salary raise, fame, recognition, punishment) through one of the employee’s elements of intrinsic motivation.

Idea for Impact: Trying to change people will result in frustration and futility. Employees may change for a short time, but unless they have a compelling reason for change, they will go back to their natural state. Managers must temper their expectations about changing employees. As the Buddha taught, one way to lessen disappointment in life is to learn to lower your expectations of others.

Eight Ways to Keep Your Star Employees Around

Eight Ways to Keep Your Star Employees Around

Every manager should make employee retention a priority and regularly inquire, “How many of my star employees would leave my organization if they could?”

Employee turnover can be expensive. Managers must find and hire replacements, invest in training the new employees, and wait for them to get to up to speed—all while suffering productivity shortfalls during the transition. The more talented an employee, the higher the cost of replacing him/her.

Here’s what you need to do to keep your star employees around.

  1. Identify them. Find key attributes that distinguish top performers from average performers. Then rank your team against these attributes and identify those employees who are critical to your organization’s short- and long-term success.
  2. Perform salary and compensation research within your industry and offer an attractive-enough benefits package. Beyond a particular point, compensation loses much of its motivating power. Consider flexible work arrangements.
  3. Understand what your star employees value and help them realize their values and regard their work as meaningful, purposeful, and important. Often, the risk of losing employees because their personal values don’t correspond with the team’s values is far greater than the risk of losing them because of compensation.
  4. Get regular feedback from your star employees. Ask, “What can I do as your manager to make our organization a great place for you to work?” Let them tell you what they need and what they like and don’t like about their jobs. Adjust their assignments and their work conditions accordingly.
  5. Invest in training and development. Give star employees opportunities to develop their skills and increase their engagement and job security. Hold frequent and formal career discussions to determine employees’ goals and aspirations and coach them.
  6. Give your star employees the autonomy, authority, and resources to use their skills and do their jobs in their own way.
  7. Keep them challenged and engaged. Make work more exciting. Set aggressive, but realizable goals. Move your star employees around into positions in the company where they will face new challenges and develop critical skills. Employees would like to be challenged, appreciated, trusted, and see a path for career advancement.
  8. Appreciate and give honest feedback regularly. Make timely and informal feedback a habit. Don’t disregard employee performance until the annual review. Help employees feel confident about your organization’s future. Earn their trust.

To Inspire, Pay Attention to People: The Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect: When managers pay attention to people, better morale and productivity ensue

The Hawthorne Experiments

Sociologist Elton Mayo’s Hawthorne Experiments marked a sea change in industrial and organizational psychology. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Mayo led this famous series of experiments on workers’ productivity at a Western Electric factory in the Chicago suburb of Hawthorne.

The experiments’ initial purpose was to study the effects of workers’ physical conditions on their productivity. The lighting in the work area for one group of workers was dramatically improved while another group’s lighting remained unchanged. The productivity of the workers with the better lighting increased.

The experimenters found similar productivity improvements when they improved other working conditions, viz., work hours, meal and rest breaks, etc. Surprisingly, the workers’ productivity increased even when the lights were dimmed again. In fact, even when everything about the workplace was restored to the way it was before the experiments had begun, the factory’s productivity was at its highest level.

Recognition and even simple acknowledgment can give people a boost

When Elton Mayo discussed his findings with the workers, he learned that the interest Mayo and his experimenters had shown in the workers made them feel more valued. They were accustomed to being ignored by management.

Mayo concluded that the workers’ productivity and morale had not improved because of the changes in physical conditions, but rather from a motivational effect—the workers felt encouraged when someone was actually concerned about their workplace conditions.

'The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilisation' by Elton Mayo (ISBN 0415436842) The Hawthorne Experiments understood the individual worker in a social context. The resulting insight was that employees’ performance was influenced not only by their own innate abilities but also by their work environment and the people they work with. Mayo wrote in The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilisation, “The desire to stand well with one’s fellows, the so-called human instinct of association, easily outweighs the merely individual interest and the logic of reasoning upon which so many spurious principles of management are based.”

Over the decades, the methodology and conclusions of the Hawthorne experiments have been widely debated. Yet the key takeaway is profound: when managers pay attention to people, better morale and productivity ensue.

Idea for Impact: Employee engagement is the very heart of effective management

Inspire your employees by asking them how they are doing. Let them in on the plans for your organization, seek their opinions, recognize them, appreciate their work, and coach and give them feedback.

Even a little appreciation and praise can go a long way to boost employee morale. The desire for recognition is a basic human need; and managers can easily fulfill this need with the aim of bringing out the best in people.

How to Promote Employees

How to Promote Employees

Job Promotions Can Be Stressful

A job promotion is generally cause for celebration and gratification. However, it can be a source of deep anxiety for many employees: they tend to suffer additional mental strain and are less likely to find time to go to the doctor. Research at the University of Warwick found that “the mental health of managers typically deteriorates after a job promotion, and in a way that goes beyond merely a short-term change.”

Promote Employees Who’ve Shown Some Evidence of Success

Before you decide to promote an employee, ask yourself the following six questions about the candidate. The more affirmative answers to these questions, the better the chances for the promotion to succeed. Examine and resolve any “no” answers before considering the employee for other job transitions.

  • Is the candidate performing her current duties well enough to justify a promotion?
  • Can she hand over her current responsibilities to a new person?
  • Does she possess a sound understanding of the fundamentals of a business and have the requisite operating experience?
  • Is she keen to take on a new job? Is she familiar with the responsibilities and priorities of the new job? Is she willing to make decisions and be accountable for results?
  • Is she qualified and experienced enough to do at least part of the new job? Is she adequately trained or ready to be trained in the new job’s requirements?
  • Are her interpersonal skills adequate to work with employees, customers, suppliers, peers, and bosses in the new job?

Idea for Impact: If employees are not entirely prepared for new assignments, you are unintentionally setting them up for stressful transitions, bitterness, or eventual failure. Beware of the perils of promoting people too quickly.

Self-Assessment Quiz: Are You A Difficult Boss?

Self-Assessment Quiz: Are You A Difficult Boss?

If you answered “yes” to any of the following questions, you need to reflect on and adjust your management style.

  • Do you give employees more critical feedback than appreciation, compliments, and positive feedback?
  • Do you undercut praise with criticism? In other words, do you deliver criticism with praise in the form of a “feedback sandwich,” undermine the positive impact of praise, and weaken the significance of the corrective feedback?
  • Do you give unfeasible or contradictory orders? For example, do you fail to give employees enough resources, time, and direction to get a job done?
  • Do you play favorites?
  • Do you reward “yes” people?
  • Do you avoid taking responsibility for your mistakes?
  • Do you focus on assigning blame and finding fault instead of fixing a problem?
  • Do you set deadlines and forget to follow up?
  • Do you micromanage too often?
  • Do you regularly coach your employees?
  • Do you invent busy work?
  • Do you stand up for your employees?
  • Are you sometimes self-absorbed and manipulative? Are you sometimes cold or abrupt?
  • Do you fail to give productive people encouragement, autonomy, and latitude?
  • Do you expect that there’s only one way to do a job, and that’s your way?
  • Do you raise your voice unnecessarily?
  • Do your employees avoid eye contact or dread meeting with you?
  • Do you act as if your team or organization would fall apart if you were to go on a vacation for a week? Do you expect regular updates from your team even while you’re on vacation?
  • Do you withhold information from your staff because it takes too much time to fill them in?
  • Do you ignore workplace concerns (inappropriate dressing, for example) until they evolve into problems? In other words, do you let concerns fester and let problematic situations get worse?

Don’t Reward A While Hoping for B

Effective Award Systems

We do what we are rewarded for doing. We are strongly motivated by the desire to maximize the positive consequences of our actions and minimize the negative consequences. Academics identify these aspects of behavioral psychology using the monikers “expectancy theory” and “operant conditioning.”

Flawed Reward Systems

Reward systems ought to commend positive behavior and punish negative behavior. But many organizations tend to reward one type of behavior when they really call or hope for another type of behavior. For instance,

  • A manager who wants his sales force to create long-term customer relationships mustn’t reward salespeople for new business from new customers, but for retaining customers and expanding sales to them.
  • A project manager focused on work quality shouldn’t reward a team for completing a project on time.
  • At institutions of higher learning, especially at prestigious universities, a professor’s primary responsibilities ought to be teaching and advising students. However, the academic rewards systems assert that the primary ways to achieve promotion and tenure are through successful research and publishing. Hence, given the constraints of time, a professor is likely to dedicate more time to research at the expense of quality teaching. Alas, mediocre teaching isn’t censured.
  • As I described in my article on “The Duplicity of Corporate Diversity Initiatives,” managers who extol the virtues of “valuing differences” stifle individuality and actively mold their employees to conform to the workplace’s existing culture and comply with the existing ways of doing things. Compliant, acquiescent employees who look the part are promoted over exceptional, questioning employees who bring truly different perspectives to the table.

“On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B”

In 1975, Prof. Steven Kerr wrote a famous article titled, “On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B” that’s become a management classic. Over the decades, this article has been widely admired for its relevance and insight. The article (the 1975 original is here and the 1995 update is here) provides many excellent examples of situations where the reward structure subtly (or sometimes blatantly) undermines the goal. The abstract reads,

Whether dealing with monkeys, rats, or human beings, it is hardly controversial to state that most organisms seek information concerning what activities are rewarded, and then seek to do (or at least pretend to do) those things, often to the virtual exclusion of activities not rewarded. The extent to which this occurs of course will depend on the perceived attractiveness of the rewards offered, but neither operant nor expectancy theorists would quarrel with the essence of this notion.

Nevertheless, numerous examples exist of reward systems that are fouled up in that the types of behavior rewarded are those which the rewarder is trying to discourage, while the behavior desired is not being rewarded at all.

Idea for Impact: “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is”

Aligning Reward Systems If you see behavior in your organization that doesn’t seem right or doesn’t make sense, ask what the underlying reward system is encouraging. Chances are that the offending behavior makes sense to the individual doing it because of inefficiencies in your reward system.

Take stock of your reward systems. Effective systems should induce employees to pursue organizational goals by appealing to employees’ conviction (or intrinsic motivations) that they will personally benefit by doing so. To inspire employees, translate levers of extrinsic motivation at your disposal to intrinsic motivation as I elaborated in my previous article.

Idea for Impact: Make sure that you understand and clearly communicate expectations, and reward what you really want your employees to achieve. Don’t encourage a particular behavior while promoting an undesirable one through your rewards and praises.

Effective Goals Can Challenge, Motivate, and Energize

One of my blog readers asked me to write more about goal-setting and performance against goals. In response, I studied the work of University of Maryland’s Edwin Locke and University of Toronto’s Gary Latham, two renowned researchers on goal-setting. Here is a summary.

Effective Goals Can Challenge, Motivate, and Energize

Goals Impact Performance in Several Ways

  • Goals can help direct: A person’s goals should direct his/her attention, effort, and action toward goal-relevant actions at the expense of less-relevant actions.
  • Goals can help motivate: A person’s goals can motivate him/her to pursue specific outcomes. The person can be motivated only when his/her goals are sufficiently challenging and can nudge him/her to put in special efforts.
  • Goals can help persist: A person is likely to persist at his/her efforts when his/her goal is worthy enough to attain.
  • Goals can trigger learning: Goals can either activate a person’s knowledge and skills that are relevant to performance or induce the person to acquire such knowledge or skills.

Best Practices for Goal-Setting and Performance

  • Specific, difficult, but attainable goals lead to better performance than easy, vague, or abstract goals such as the general-purpose exhortation to “do your best.” Hard goals motivate because they require a person to achieve more in order to be content with his/her own performance.
  • 'Goals' by Brian Tracy (ISBN 1605094110) Goal specificity and performance share a positive, linear relationship. When a person’s goals are specific, they direct and energize his/her behavior far more effectively than when they are vague and unspecific.
  • Performance is directly proportional to the difficulty of a goal as long as a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability and resources to achieve the goal, and does not have conflicting goals.
  • Taking on excess work without access to the necessary resources to realize the goals (“overload”) can moderate the effects of goals.
  • A team performs best when the goals of the individuals on the team are compatible with the team’s goal. Therefore, when an individual’s goals are incompatible with his team’s, his/her contribution to the team will be subpar.
  • The goal need not be in focal awareness all the time. Once a goal is accepted and understood, it resides in the periphery of the person’s consciousness and serves to guide and give meaning to his/her actions.
  • While long-term goals are relevant and helpful, most people find short-term goals more effective because they channel a person’s immediate and direct efforts and provide quick feedback. This suggests that it’s best to divide long-term goals into concrete short-term objectives.
  • 'Living in Your Top 1%' by Alissa Finerman (ISBN 1453619232) Self-efficacy plays a key role in the achievement of goals. A person is much more likely to buy into and pursue goals if he/she believes himself/herself to be competent enough to reach those goals. The most effective goals must therefore embrace a person’s strengths—such goals help him/her strive towards success by leveraging the best of who he/she is and what he/she can do.
  • One reason a person may lack self-efficacy is his/her past failures with undertaking similar goals. Such a person may believe that he/she may never reach his/her goals and should first undertake a series of small, near-term goals instead of difficult, distant goals. The person’s success with a series of smaller goals can boost his/her confidence and can inspire him/her to undertake larger goals. For example, a chain-smoker will find the goal of smoking cessation daunting. He should therefore focus on smaller goals like gradually cutting down the number of cigarettes he smokes every day. Experiences of goal achievement can build up momentum to tackle the larger goal.
  • Goals are not effective by themselves. Feedback is the most important moderator of goal-setting because it tracks the progress of performance towards goals and creates new sub-goals. If a person finds his/her progress towards a goal unsatisfactory, the feedback he/she receives can drive corrective efforts to develop new skills or pursue the goal in a new way.

“Goals Gone Wild”: The Use and Abuse of Goals

The Use and Abuse of Goals

An article in The Economist (7-March-2015 Issue) discussed the side effects of goal setting, more specifically the perils of overprescribing goals. This article echoes my earlier commentary on “The Trouble with Targets and Goals.”

The Economist article mentioned a Harvard Business School paper titled “Goals Gone Wild” by Lisa D. Ordonez, et al. This engaging literature review discusses many of the predictable side effects of goal setting on individual and organizational performance:

  • When goals are too specific, they can narrow people’s focus. People tend to fixate on a goal so intensely that they overlook aspects of a task that are unrelated to the goal. Even if unrelated, these overlooked details may be significant enough to warrant attention.
  • When people are assigned too many goals, this can encourage them to concentrate on tasks that are comparatively easier to achieve.
  • When goals aren’t afforded an appropriate time-horizon, they can distort long-and short-term priorities. Short-term goals can steer people toward myopic behavior that harms their organization in the long term. Conversely, long-term goals can be vague about the immediate course of action and obscure what’s required in the short term.
  • When goals are too challenging, they can discourage risk-taking. As a result, people may use deceitful methods to reach their goals or even misrepresent their performance levels—they may exaggerate their feats, conceal underperformance, or claim unmerited credit. The authors acknowledge the complexity of setting goals “at the most challenging level possible to inspire effort, commitment, and performance—but not so challenging that employees see no point in trying.”
  • When goals are complex, specific, and challenging, they can push people to focus narrowly on performance and neglect opportunities for experiential learning.
  • When goals are comparative, i.e., when goals pit employees against their peers, goals can hinder cooperation between people and even create a culture of unhealthy competition within a team.
  • When goals, by definition, try to increase extrinsic motivation, they can subdue people’s intrinsic motivation. Goals can challenge some people far more or far less than necessary if the intrinsic value of the job itself is already deeply motivating.
  • When goals fail to consider individuals’ skills or prior achievements or when they are not tailored enough, they can be too easy for some and too difficult for others. On the other hand, customizing goals can lead to feeling of discrimination or favoritism.

A Warning Label for Setting Goals

The authors propose a clever cautionary graphic sign and conclude,

For decades, scholars have prescribed goal setting as an all-purpose remedy for employee motivation. Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment motivation, managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.

Idea for Impact: Set objectives that are not only well designed, but also challenging and attainable.

Collegial Goal-Setting and Goal-Monitoring?

An article in The Economist (7-Mar-2015 Issue) mentions a new trend in setting and monitoring goals. The “Quantified Work” system lets employees collaborate with each other to set targets for their peers.

Collegial Goal-Setting and Goal-Monitoring Apparently, this collegial system has improved performance and transparency at Google, Twitter, Intel, and Kroger, among other organizations. “Quantified Work” is a checks-and-balances system which allows peers to set and monitor goals for each other. This both enforces accountability and ensures that goals are neither too hard nor too easy.

Kris Duggan, CEO of BetterWorks, the Silicon Valley startup behind “Quantified Work,” argues, “The traditional once-a-year setting of employee goals and performance review is totally out of date. To really improve performance, goals need to be set more frequently, be more transparent to the rest of the company, and progress towards them measured more often.” Amen to that.

Interestingly, the article mentions that achieving 60–70% of the goals thus set is considered normal rather than a failure. The article also cautions that salary raises and bonuses should not be linked to these goals. I deduce that “Quantified Work” is more for collaborative task-and-deadline management than for meaningful employee performance assessment.

In my consulting practice, I have tested collaborative task management. It’s not as efficient as it purports to be: employees tend to get carried away and spend more time adding goals and checking performance than doing actual work.

The Trouble with Targets and Goals

The Trouble with Targets and Goals

'The Balanced Scorecard - Translating Strategy into Action' by Robert Kaplan and David Norton (ISBN 0875846513) In a well-known 1992 Harvard Business Review article as well as a book on translating strategy into action, Robert Kaplan and David Norton explained the need for a “balanced scorecard.” They encouraged leaders to develop tools with which to monitor the performance of any organization. The authors explained, “Think of the balanced scorecard as the dials and indicators in an airplane cockpit. For the complex task of navigating and flying an airplane, pilots need detailed information about many aspects of the flight, like fuel level, airspeed, altitude, bearing, etc.”

Goals are effective apparatus—a persuasive system indicating what achievements matter the most to an organization. Well-defined objectives, expressed in terms of specific goals, often direct an organization’s performance, sharpen focus on the execution of the organization’s strategic and operative plans, and boost productivity.

In terms of an individual within a company, goal-setting is especially important as a way to provide ongoing and year-end feedback. You can give employees continuous input on their performance and motivate them by setting and monitoring targets.

Still, there are four things to look out for when setting and managing targets:

  • Some organizations get so overwhelmed with setting and meeting targets that managers tend to adopt whatever behaviors necessary to meet the goals set by their superiors.
  • In goal-setting, less is more and simple is better Some organizations get carried away and set too many targets. While goals are beneficial, having more of them is not necessarily better. In fact, too many targets can lead to stress, muddled efforts, and organizational atrophy. In this instance, employees feel as if they’re being asked to throw darts in multiple directions all at once. Adding to the confusion, priorities can even conflict with one another—e.g. decreasing production cycle-time while not hiring more workers or buying more equipment. According to a 2011 study by consulting firm Booz (now named Strategy&), 64% of participating global executives reported facing too many conflicting priorities. The celebrated management consultant Peter Drucker famously advised his clients to pursue no more than two priorities at a time:

Develop your priorities and don’t have more than two. I don’t know anybody who can do three things at the same time and do them well. Do one task at a time or two tasks at a time. That’s it. OK, two works better for most. Most people need the change of pace. But, when you are finished with two jobs or reach the point where it’s futile, make the list again. Don’t go back to priority three. At that point, it’s obsolete.

  • Sometimes, organizations can be so eager to reach a target that they institute an overly aggressive system (unreasonable “stretch goals“) in an attempt to drive people to heroic levels of performance. Instead, it’s best to have goals that represent what senior management thinks ought to happen, not the contents of their wildest dreams.
  • When grading an employee’s performance depends heavily upon that individual meeting his targets (e.g. bonuses promised to salesmen who achieve certain revenue targets,) it can pit employee against employee. This tends to create an unhealthily competitive environment with colleagues scrambling over each other to get to the client or show off their achievements to management. Conflicts and rivalry between employees is one of the dominant criticisms of the individual performance rating system and the forced ranking system that many companies currently practice.

Idea for Impact: In goal-setting, less is more and simple is better. A few well-chosen, consequential targets and goals can sharpen an individual’s or an organization’s focus and boost productivity. Too many targets can lead to stress and even disaster.