Hold Employees Procountable

June 16, 2013

Thumbsup croppedNo, that is not a typo in the title. This article is a twist on the concept of “holding people accountable.” Those three words seem to be the mantra in management circles over the past few years. When used, these words almost always mean that someone has fallen short versus expectations, and the supervisor needs to point out that lapse and have a discussion about improving performance. If you listen carefully, nearly 100% of the time managers use “hold them accountable,” it is coming from a failure point of view.

One source of the problem is the word “hold.” It conjures up an image of holding a person’s feet to the fire. The transitive verb to hold means, ” to make liable or accountable or bound to an obligation” (Mirriam Webster 11th Collegiate Dictionary). In other words, when we hold something in this sense, a force is acting to restrain it, and make it liable to a prior obligation. That is clearly negative spin rather than the alternate concept of helping people do the right thing for the betterment of the organization.

Imagine how the world would be different if we eliminated the negative concept of accountability and replaced it with a positive concept called “procountability.” In this case, the action would be to reflect on the many ways an individual is doing well and measuring up to, or exceeding, expectations.

For most people, being held procountable would be a positive experience that would encourage more of those actions rather than cause a person to cower in fear of the next chewing out from the boss. Sure, there would be times when a person did not measure up to expectations, so the procountable discussion would point out that the intentions of the individual did not produce the expected result in this instance. Some coaching may be needed, and occasionally a kick in the butt may be helpful, but most of the procountable discussions would be supportive and lead to higher productivity on the part of the individual.

The logic here is that most people come to work on most days with the intention of doing the right things. Very few people actually try to mess up at work, and if you tolerate any of these people on your team, shame on you. Get rid of them as fast as you can. So, if most people are doing the right things most of the time, we could have numerous procountable discussions relative to their successes. When a occasional lapse does happen, for whatever reason, it would be the exception rather than the rule on feedback. That difference alone would change the equation greatly. If 95% of the feedback is coming in the form of supportive comments, and only 5% coming in the form of potential improvements, the working environment would be a much better place for most employees.

Unfortunately, in most organizations that obsess on holding people accountable, the feedback employees hear from managers and supervisors is 95% negative and only 5% supportive. After a while, the culture gets beaten down, and the need for more corrective and punitive discussions becomes more frequent. The common phrase uttered by thousands of workers over the decades is “the only time I ever hear from my boss is when I screw up.”

Try reversing the logic and encourage managers to hold employees procountable rather than accountable. It will change the entire environment at work. Soon there will be a lower propensity for problems because the overwhelming volume of feedback produces a positive feeling that comes from being recognized for doing the right things.


Do Not Mix Empowerment and Morale

May 11, 2013

Girl with thumbs upMost of the time morale and empowerment are linked, but they do not always have to be. When we think of empowered people, we imagine individuals who are allowed to figure out how to do their work the best way they know how. When we think of people with high morale, we envision individuals who feel really good about what they are doing for some reason.

I can imagine a situation where my morale would be high but I am not empowered very much. Suppose I am stuffing envelopes at the United Way Office. I have very little freedom to put creativity into the job. It needs to be done just exactly the prescribed way each time. I have very low empowerment and a huge stack of routine work, yet I have a feeling that I am making a contribution to a good cause, so my morale is very high. As a result of my work, many families will be receiving the services they need. My heart is light as I am doing banal work that is incredibly tedious.

On the flip side, imagine I am given an assignment to run the weekly parts inventory as a substitute for the regular technician. I am given the freedom to organize the job and get it done any way I wish. I can come in during evening hours or on the weekend when things are quiet if I like. I am not bound to do the job a specific way as long as I get the job done in a responsible way. My empowerment is pretty high. Unfortunately, I am not a numbers person, and I hate doing inventory. I think it is boring, and it feels like a prison sentence until the job is done. As I launch into the work, my morale is very low. I do not want to do it, yet I am empowered to make all kinds of decisions about how it will be done. In this case, we see high empowerment coupled with low morale.

Most of the time morale and empowerment occur at the same time, but it is a mistake to think this is always the case. The two concepts are different and are impacted differently based on what is going on in a particular case.


Measuring Morale

April 13, 2013

scaleCan you measure morale accurately by simply walking into a room and observing people? I think you can. In my courses, I often ask participants to tell me the best way to measure morale. Most of them come up with the idea of an employee survey or some other form of lagging indicator, like turnover rate. While both of these techniques are useful, I think there is a far faster and more accurate way to measure the morale of people in an organization, and you can do it while there is still time to take corrective actions. All you have to do is observe the individuals, and they will give ample clues as to their morale.

Here are seven ways to measure morale by watching and listening to what people do:

1. Posture

If people are standing with one hip raised, that is a sign of a poor attitude. It is a hostile gesture where the individual has a chip on his shoulder and he is daring you to knock it off. If people are sitting in a slouched-over configuration, that may be simple fatigue or it may be they feel beaten down and fearful when managers are around. If you walk into a room and people are sitting around a table leaning back with their arms folded, you can immediately sense these folks are dug in, grumpy, and not happy. The most sensitive areas for posture are in the shoulders and the position of the spine. I once walked into a restaurant to meet up with a colleague for a chat. She was sitting in a booth with her back to me and did not see me approach. All I could see of her was the back of her head and the upper 6 inches of her shoulders. I accurately determined before seeing her face or hearing her voice that she was in crisis mode due to a family tragedy.

2. Gestures

When people are together, watch the gestures. If they are doing a lot of finger pointing as they speak, there is a hostile environment. If their hands are most often open with palms up, that means they are open to ideas and suggestions. Watch to see if the gestures remain the same as managers come in the room. For example, if people are having an animated conversation about some outside event but clam up both verbally and with gesturing when the manager walks in, it is a sign of either fear or apathy. Certainly hostile or vulgar gestures are obvious indications of poor morale. The best display of good attitudes is if the gesturing remains the same when a manager approaches. People are comfortable and not threatened by this leader.

3. Facial Expression

There are thousands of facial expressions that have meaning, and many of these are specific to the culture in which they are used. The eyes and mouth hold the most information about attitude. For example, when a manager is giving information, if people roll their eyes, the meaning is that they believe the manager is basically clueless and is wasting their time. If they are tight lipped, it is normally a sign of fear and low trust. The most positive expression for morale is a slight smile with bright open eyes and highly arched eyebrows. This expression indicates interest and openness.

4. Tone of voice

When people speak, their tone will give away how engaged they are in the conversation at hand. Apathy is easy to spot with a kind of roll-off of words in a low pitch that says “I don’t care.” If the voice is stressed and shrill, that usually connotes fear of some type. Anger is easy to detect as the voice becomes choppy and the pitch and volume go up dramatically. The sneer also can be detected as people take on a mocking tone when they mimic other people. Medium voice modulation with good diction usually means good engagement and attention.

5. Jokes

When people make jokes at the expense of the other people, it is often thought of as just kidding around. The fact is, there is always some kind of truth underlying every dig. So if people are mocking a manager for always showing up late to the meeting, it may cause a chuckle, but it actually reveals that people believe the manager has no real respect for them. Some groups are world class at making jokes at the expense of team members. I maintain this is a sign of poor rapport that will show up as lack of good teamwork. This poor behavior can be easily stopped by just coming up with a rule that we will no longer make jokes at the expense of others.

At one company where I was teaching, the rule about not making jokes at the expense of others was the third behavioral rule on their list (I always have groups create such a list). It was easy to extinguish the bad habit because we just allowed people to hold up three fingers whenever anybody violated the rule. The poor behavior, that had been going on for decades in that organization, was fully extinguished in less than one hour.

6. Word choice

When people are honestly engaged in positive conversation and are making constructive observations or ideas, it shows high morale. If they undermine the ideas of others or management, it shows a lack of respect that has its roots in low morale. If the leader asks for a volunteer and you can hear a pin drop, that is a different reaction than if three hands go up immediately. People with high morale spontaneously volunteer to help out the organization. They respect their leader and truly want him or her to succeed because they know if the leader is successful then good things will happen for them.

7. Reinforcement

In a culture of high morale, people have a tendency to praise each other and seek ways to help out other people. When morale is low, everybody is in it for themselves and will discredit the ideas or desires of other people to preserve their own status. Leaders who know how to build a culture where individuals spontaneously praise each other for good deeds can foster higher morale by that emphasis alone.

These are just seven ways you can identify the morale of a group simply by observing what people are doing and saying. You can go to the trouble of a time consuming and suspect survey, but you do not need to in order to measure morale. Measuring turnover or absenteeism will be an accurate long term reflection of morale, but by the time you get that data, the damage is already done. You have often lost the best people. By observing people every day and making small corrective actions along the way, you can prevent low morale and build an environment of higher trust. In that kind of culture, productivity will go up dramatically.


Is Happiness the Same as Morale?

March 23, 2013

Laughing out loud croppedAre morale and happiness really the same thing? We say that people at work have high morale when they are happy, but does one always follow the other? I can imagine that they are linked in some way, usually, but I suspect it is possible to have high morale even if you do not particularly like your job.

Think about some job or activity that you have had in the past that you really did not enjoy very much. You were not cheerful while on the job, but you might have had high morale because it was getting you somewhere.

A good example might be working toward a college degree. I recognize that, for most people, reading books, writing papers, and taking exams are not fun activities. I remember being very unhappy as a student many times, as the stress would get to me. Yet, while not enjoying the work at all, I still had very high morale because I knew the education would pay off in the end, which it did.

Let’s find an example of the reverse situation: Happy but with low morale. There are numerous ways this can happen. You might be in a situation where you are working for a leader you do not respect and who tries to bribe people into being engaged in the work by letting them get away with things and giving away perks beyond a reasonable level. This leader has one thing in mind, make people at work happy. Well, he can accomplish this and make me happy about all the goodies he is providing and that he lets me go home early whenever I want. It is not hard to imagine my morale being rather low after a while. Reason: I am not challenged and am given things that I do not deserve.

Another example might be when working on a specific project that I know is important. I am working in a not-for-profit organization. Here I am happy because my labor is going for a good cause. The result of my work is helping many needy families. I have to tolerate the fact that my boss is a hopeless micromanager who needs to know the details of everything I do and wants me to do everything how he would do it. I can be happy with the contribution I am making to society, but my morale is low because of the working conditions I must endure for the privilege of making that contribution.

Most of the time we see a linking of happiness and morale. Workers who are satisfied usually also exhibit high motivation, but it does not always have to be so. In fact, Frederick Herzberg taught us over 60 years ago, with his Two Factor Theory, that the controlling factors for satisfaction are different from those that generally cause motivation. He called the things that keep people from becoming unhappy “hygiene factors.” These would be things like pay, bonuses, nice offices, clean restrooms, comfortable furniture, and parking close to the building. If the hygiene factors are missing, then people are going to become dissatisfied, but piling on more hygiene factors is not the way to create higher motivation or morale. The “motivating factors” of responsibility, accountability, autonomy, flexibility, caring, and other less tangible factors have more power to create morale and motivation.

We see that there is a general trend that happy workers have high morale, and I grant that is usually the case. The two concepts are not the same, and neither are they hard-wired together. To have the most productive workers, not only do they need to be reasonably happy, but they must simultaneously have high morale. Leaders need to test for both conditions.


Murders and Apparitions

March 9, 2013

Knife in handMost business people call them Mergers and Acquisitions (M&As), but my wife calls them Murders and Apparitions. M&As are supposed to make things better, but far too often they create ghosts that spirit away trust or lead to outright “companycide.”

For those who have not studied the subject, the failure rate of M&As typically runs between 50% and 80%. Don’t believe me? Look it up! Of course that statistic depends on how you define failure. A “failure” does not always mean the merger needs to be broken up or the acquisition resold. Generally, people refer to an M&A failure when organizations have preconceived expectations from a merger or acquisition that are not realized within 2-3 years after the event.

M&A failures are common, but it is not because the lawyers, accountants, and managers of the entities do a poor job with the mechanical parts of the action. The negotiations, due diligence, formal papers, tax considerations, asset valuation, and other tangible things are taught in the business schools and are normally pretty well done. What invariably destroys an M&A is a failure to merge the cultures of the two entities into a reasonable blended culture.

Murders

Many things get killed off in a typical merger or acquisition. First, the culture of both groups is lost. What emerges often is unsatisfactory to both groups of people. It is amazing to interview people in the throes of an M&A, because often people in both groups believe they got the shaft and the other group received the lion’s share of benefits. Motivation is squandered when a culture is murdered. People are lost, walking around like zombies, not knowing if they even have a job, let alone exactly what that job might be.

Another fatality is customer service. While most people in both groups are in disarray, and this can take years to fix, the customer assumes second place. Survival for each individual becomes paramount. The customers do not care at all about the merger or its success; the customers just want high quality products on time and at the expected price. They expect rapid and friendly service if something goes wrong, but they find it hard to even contact people, let alone get swift answers to technical problems.

Death also comes swiftly to teamwork. In most situations there will be future job cuts. This realization pits people against each other. One can observe all kinds of backstabbing activities or even outright sabotage. Sometimes cliques will emerge where groups are openly combative in the mad scramble for ultimate survival.

Apparitions

There are numerous factors that, while not deathlike, will seem to be ghostly or somehow haunted. A good example is the development of people. Prior to the merger or acquisition, both entities have concrete development plans for most employees. During the transition, these plans are usually put on hold because nobody knows who the survivors are going to be. It takes a long time after the full integration happens to get back to a documented and well-understood plan for developing people.

Another apparition is communications. It turns out that during normal times, poor communication is the number one or number two complaint for most employees. Imagine how communication suffers when managers are totally preoccupied with putting out fires and there are no real answers to logical questions. The lack of solid information generally tends to add both time and cost to the process, which lowers the chances of success.

A third apparition is the spirit of the employees. Since the ultimate blended culture is going to be somewhat different than either of the two initial cultures, people quickly become discouraged. Therefore, during an extended period, there really is no definable culture for the organization. This exacerbates the problems.

A final example of an apparition is the role of HR. The HR departments of both the pre-merged entities were functioning as highly taxed groups struggling to keep up. In the merged configuration, HR is burdened with about three times the load of critical work at a time when many of the HR staff do not know if their own jobs are secure. The service level of HR appears ghostly to most employees because HR is in no condition to provide basic service, let alone meet the significantly enhanced challenges.

During a time of trying to integrate two entities into one, there are a multitude of problems and issues. A large percentage of these issues were not anticipated by the well-intended mangers who dreamed up the wonderful new configuration. With all the problems outlined above, it is no wonder people are extremely wary of mergers and acquisitions. It takes exceptional leadership to prevent chaos and loss of market share when organizations go through these major upheavals. The fact that some M&As do succeed is a testament to the skill and fortitude of the people involved in the successful ventures.


Less Control Can Mean Better Results

January 26, 2013

JoystickThe advice in the title sounds backward, doesn’t it? The typical knee-jerk reaction when things are not going according to desires at work is for managers to add more controls. This is an effort to get more people to do what they are supposed to do, so performance will improve. Only one problem: most of the time greater control translates into lower performance.

The reason why more control is usually the worst course of action has to do with motivation. In most organizations, there is already too much control over what people do. Policy manuals and specific rules for how we do things are installed for a reason, and woe be to anybody who breaks the rules.

The signal being sent by management is that they do not trust people to do the right thing. When managers heap more rules onto the already steaming pile of procedures, people become more disillusioned, and motivation takes a hit. Result: people comply begrudgingly, but will not go beyond simple compliance. The organization suffers as workers leave most of their discretionary effort on the front steps.

Great managers realize that by reducing the control, performance often increases and does so in dramatic ways. In Smart Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey and Greg Link give ample evidence that when employees are trusted to do what is right, they normally rise to the occasion, and remarkable things start to happen. The book has literally hundreds of data points to show there is a definite trend here, but one example, in particular, caught my eye.

I like the story of Gordon Bethune, who took over the helm at Continental Airlines in 1994. At that time, Continental was approaching its third bankruptcy, and performance measures in all areas were the worst in the industry. The workers had been so abused by managers applying onerous rules and regulations that they were just going through the motions, and Gordon did not blame them. He was smart enough to recognize he would need to repair their spirits before he could get them to perform. He likened the daunting task of turning around their enthusiasm to being the adopted parents of severely abused children. He would have to earn their trust before he could begin to restore their enthusiasm for the work. But how could he do that?

In a number of steps, he started to show employees that he had more faith in them than in the rule books. In fact, at one point, he had company policy manuals taken out to the parking lot where he had them burned publicly. Rather than rely on controlling rules, he let the people know the objectives and broad operating methods, but let the employees use their own judgment in making the decisions on day-to-day activities.

Over the next decade, Continental Airlines, with this new philosophy of fewer rules and higher trust, began to win customer service awards. Their stock price went from $2 to over $50, and in Bethune’s final year, Fortune ranked Continental the Most Admired Global Airline. Let’s sum it up. Fewer rules and higher trust allowed a nearly dead airline to rise to a predominant position. Why? Because the power of the people is what you need to run any successful organization.

Covey and Link give a five part formula in the book that creates a pathway toward an enduring trust that is neither blind or naive. It is what they call Smart Trust. I recommend the book for any manager who is struggling with poor performance and a situation of over control.

It is important not to just throw away all procedures, because some of them are needed for legal purposes or to ensure standard practices in complex and critical situations. Managers should stop trying to account for every situation that might go wrong. They should stop trying to direct people how to react to every single scenario, because it chokes out the creativity and enthusiasm of the workforce.

The secret is to have specific processes only where they are needed, and allow people to use their brains when an off-standard condition requires quick thinking. For example, there may be a set procedure for investigating the situation before granting a customer refund, but there will be times when it is wiser to ignore the rule and immediately accept the customer’s word.

When managers allow people to use their God-given intelligence, they nearly always do the right thing, and if they make a mistake it is usually a small one. If the rulebook is so heavy that it takes hours to find out the proper way to react to a given situation, what you will get is simple compliance most of the time, but you will miss the opportunity to have a fully engaged workforce.


Stretched Too Thin?

July 22, 2012

We hear that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. If you are a manager, one sure thing is that people will tell you there are not enough employees to do the job. I have yet to find an organization where the workers do not feel stretched beyond their ability.

Productivity makes an interesting study, because most behavioral scientists agree that in any organization the actual productivity is a small fraction of the capability inherent in the people. Research reported by the Gallup Organization in 2010 indicates that for average organizations, only 33% of the workers are engaged, 49% of them are not engaged, and 18% are actively disengaged. This low productivity is usually not the fault of the workers, but the result of a poor culture established by top leaders.

The paradox here is that while there is a perpetual outcry for more people in most organizations, the human resources that are available are grossly underutilized. By establishing a culture of higher trust, managers can change the equation dramatically.

We do not need more people; we need better utilization of the people we already have. How do we solve the age-old mystery of getting higher levels of effort and engagement on the part of people? The irony is that when managers look to improve productivity, they often focus on numerous other things and forget that true productivity lies with the motivation of people.

For example, I read an interesting article on productivity in the Encyclopedia of Management 2006, which gives 17 ways to improve productivity in an organization. They are:

1. capital investments in production
2. capital investments in technology
3. capital investments in equipment
4. capital investments in facilities
5. economies of scale
6. workforce training and experience
7. technological changes
8. work methods
9. procedures
10. systems
11. quality of products
12. quality of processes
13. quality of management
14. legislative and regulatory environment
15. general levels of education
16. social environment
17. geographic factors

Notice the amazing lack of motivational aspects in this list. The only factor in the whole list that has much to do with motivation is item 13, quality of management. True, we can improve productivity with capital investments or systems, but the real gold is changing the morale of the people doing the work. That takes an investment of a different kind. My thesis is that the missing ingredient in productivity is trust.

The Trust Across America Organization has gathered some compelling data over the past decade that shows corporations with high trust achieve 500-600% greater returns than the S&P 500. So productivity, and the resulting profits, are available if we can only educate leaders on how to build and maintain higher trust. That revelation means we can stop whining about not enough people and start focusing more effort on the skills needed to grow trust.

Improving the level of trust in an organization starts at the very top. The most senior managers must recognize it is their behaviors and the signals they send that set the tone for everything that happens in their organization. There are several groups and consultants, including myself, who specialize in helping organizations understand the pathways to higher trust.

I recommend that all top managers have a key thrust to change their behavior patterns so that trust begins to grow from the highest levels. Once started, the improvement in trust will naturally flow down through the entire organization, and the first thing you know, the outcry for more people will become muted. The employees are there just waiting to put their shoulder into the work once they are treated the right way.