When good people do bad things

Too often, we see colleagues lose their job for covering up a mistake that would not have led to any form of discipline, let alone their termination.

Those are the saddest moments.

They expose a low-trust culture where an employee is willing to risk her job or her career for fear of admitting a mistake.

Our typical response – to shake our heads in disbelief and then move on – is unacceptable. Someone just lost their job, in part because of the culture we created or tolerated. We ought to examine how we do things and look for what might have led to this unfortunate outcome.

Questions to ponder:

  • How do we react when others make mistakes, miss a deadline, fall short of a goal? Is the reaction commensurate to the missed opportunity?
  • When we make mistakes, do we admit them freely? Do we share the mistake and its learnings with others (demonstrating that one can survive mistakes)?
  • Do we go as far as encouraging mistakes by asking our employees to be curious and to experiment?
  • Do we recognize colleagues for pursuing innovative ideas, even if they fail?
  • Do we have unforgiving compensation schemes, where huge bonuses are paid for meeting 100% of the goal but nothing if 99.9% of the goal is met?
  • Do we offer an ombudsman program where employees can ask for advice while remaining anonymous?
  • Do we forgive mistakes made by senior leaders more easily than those made by the rank-in-file?

To be clear, employees who cheat, lie, and steal to cover up a mistake deserve to be punished. But let’s remember that everyone has a breaking point. So when someone breaks, how much of that pressure came from us?

How talk went from dangerous to cheap

A long time ago (well, not that long ago), we could hear managers say things like “I don’t care how you do it, just get it done.”

Some time later, they understood the dangers of saying such things and stopped saying them.

Eventually, some managers started to say things like “It’s important that we meet these goals the right way.” This is pretty much where we are today.

This last evolution is important but still falls far short of where we need to be. Without more specificity, employees are left to guess what the “right way” means for their supervisor. And, what if it means nothing to them? What if these words are not credible when everything else about the organization suggests that goals must be met at all costs?

Today, managers must go beyond words and take action. One of the best actions they can take is to ask employees, before they set out to meet a goal, “How will you meet this goal?” As Dov Seidman says, “How we do things is just as important as what we do.”

Take this typical scenario:

  • It’s January. The sales manager presents the quarterly goals to her team and says “We need to meet these goals and we need to do it the right way.” One of her sales rep comes to her and says “I really don’t think we can meet these goals. The market just isn’t there in Q1.” She responds “You are a great sales rep. I know you can do it. Go out there and get them! But remember, do it the right way.”
  • In February, the sales rep comes back to his manager and says “Boss, the product is simply not moving. We won’t be able to meet these goals.” To which she responds “You are the most capable sales rep on the team. I believe in you. I know you can do it. But remember, do it the right way.”
  • The end of Q1 arrives and the sales rep proudly announces that he’s met his goals for the quarter. With a huge smile, his manager gives him a high-five and says “See! I told you you could do it! Great job! Way to get your bonus!”

Can you see what’s wrong with this picture? How can a manager not ask her employee how he met his goals after he repeatedly complained that the goals could not be met?

In fact, by the time the goals are met, it might be too late to ask how he did it. A good manager will ask the “how” question before sending his team into the field.

Saying the right things feels great today because for so long managers were quiet about ethics and compliance. But talk is cheap – and sometimes ineffective.

To create the right culture, managers need to take action, which often comes in the form of asking the right questions.

Even when they know they won’t like the answer.

Book report: Primed to Perform – Rethinking Performance


Reading notes by Yan Tougas

Rethinking performance

There are two types of performance: tactical performance, or the ability to execute a plan, and adaptive performance, or the ability to diverge from plan.

Today, when organizations measure performance, they typically measure only tactical performance, mostly because adaptive performance is very difficult, sometimes impossible, to measure.  But only measuring tactical performance is an incomplete measure of performance.

When the work requires only tactical performance (e.g. placing an item in a box on an assembly line), the presence of indirect motives may not decrease performance, and may in fact increase it.  Assembly line workers who have been boxing an average of 10 items per minute without a financial incentive may actually box a few more if you offer a bonus for every additional item they box over 10.

Work that requires only tactical performance is rare.  Most work is subject to some volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (known as “VUCA” in the military).  VUCA demands that workers diverge from the plan, that they adapt.  They need adaptive performance, which is negatively affected by indirect motives, as demonstrated by the distraction, cancellation, and cobra effect.

Distraction effect – Hundreds of studies have demonstrated that emotional and economic distractions reduce overall performance.  If you ask math students to complete a series of problems as quickly as they can while sitting alone in different booths, they will perform better than if you place them all in the same room, standing up at the same board, and asking them to sit when they are done.  The last ones standing are often unable to solve the last problems as everyone else is looking on; the emotional pressure is too high.  Similarly, if you offer these students a large sum of money (hundreds of dollars) to complete as many problems as possible within a given time, they will solve fewer than when a small reward (or no reward) is offered.  In both cases, the students have two things to focus on: solving problems and looking smart/making money.  The more distracted they are, the more performance suffers.

Cancellation effect – Studies have shown that rewards cancel out the natural sense of play – that part of us that does the work for the pure joy of it, and the strongest of direct motives.  Experiments have shown that workers who are naturally helpful (i.e. helpful without promise of a reward) cease to be helpful when a reward is introduced and later withdrawn.  Additionally, when you reward one thing you often create a trade-off.  Rewarding quantity often affects quality.  A focus on near-term can affect long-term results.  And so on.

Cobra effect – When India was a British colony, the Brits tried to reduce the number of cobras roaming the streets by offering a reward for every dead one brought in.  It didn’t take long for someone to build a cobra farm.  That’s when the Brits realized that they didn’t want more dead cobras, they wanted fewer live ones.  But dead cobras are much easier to count, so that’s what they measured.  Every job creates the opportunity for maladaptive performance.  When motivation is low enough (i.e. when levels of emotional and/or economic pressure are high), people find the easiest way to relieve that pressure (think fraud triangle).  Call center workers hang up in the middle of a call to get on the next one simply to meet their duration or volume goals.  Sales people kill the margin at the end of the quarter to meet revenue goals.  When cobra farms are discovered, organizations can either eliminate the indirect motive and build a better culture; or they can keep the reward system in place and add controls.  Most organizations choose the second option because it is easier to create.  They also assume that nothing is wrong with their culture and that the wrongdoers, however numerous, are simply bad apples.

These three effects reduce adaptive performance until it produces maladaptive performance.  Meanwhile, tactical performance can remain high (the sales person will shift all of her attention to selling and stop being helpful to colleagues – individuality/teamwork trade-off).  Those who only measure tactical performance don’t notice the crippling effects on adaptive performance, and ToMo goes down “inexplicably”.  We should be alarmed because adaptive performance is the secret sauce behind innovation, creativity, great customer service, distinctive salesmanship, etc.