Edwards Deming believed that work quotas and management by objectives (MBO) are counterproductive because they have a detrimental effect on quality – i.e they emphasise quantity over quality (see point 11 of Deming’s 14 principles). Despite this, quotas and “objective” performance indicators advocated by MBO continue to be popular in many organisations. I have had several discussions with assorted managers from diverse organisations about this, and although some concede the shortcomings of MBO, many continue to believe it is the best available method for managing people because it “eliminates” subjectivity.
Now, the alleged objectivity of MBO can be debated, but it’s probably not going to make a whit of a difference: performance measurement systems and those oh-so SMART objectives are here to stay. Which brings me to my point: performance measurement systems tend distort the behaviour of many managers who, in the push to achieve their objectives, drive their teams beyond reasonable limits. In the long run this is counter-productive: folks suffer burnout, lose respect for the manager or, if things get too much, simply up sticks and leave for pastures of a better shade. This is a loss for the organisation. There is another way – one which maintains employee motivation and engagement in the workplace whilst also getting the best possible results. Honestly, there’s no rocket science involved; just a small shift in perspective. It can be summed up follows: put people first and results will naturally follow.
How might one do that? Here are some concrete actions one can take:
1. Set people up for success, not failure: This is important: ensure that you set realistic objectives for team members, else you’re just setting them up for failure. Yes, I know Realistic is the “R” in SMART, but it’s frequently forgotten. What do you do if your boss sets you unrealistic goals? Two words: push back. Longer answer: explain logically (but without getting emotional or excited) why you think the goals are unachievable in the time allotted. By the same token, be prepared to receive similar feedback from your team. If you have to live with MBO, make sure that meeting objectives doesn’t call for superhuman effort. The workplace is no place for heroics.
2. Assume everyone wants to do their best: Some managers start with the assumption that people need to be supervised and monitored continually (as per Theory X) else they will lapse into slackness and indolence. In my experience the opposite is true: people generally want to do well and be recognised as valuable members of the team. This makes a manager’s job easy:give people meaningful work, empower them to make decisions about how they will do it, and get out of their way; don’t interfere , avoid gratuitous advice (unlike me!), unnecessary recurring meetings and pointless written reports. Monitor progress informally ( MBWA works well for me in this regard). Jump in only when asked to do so, or if intervention is really necessary.
3. Be consistent: Tell a consistent story from day-to-day. What does this mean? Well, it’s a combination of things, including:
- Not flip-flopping on decisions. I’ve seen managers who’ve changed their minds as often as they’ve changed clothes. Such behaviour confuses and eventually irritates everyone who reports to them.
- Approaching work and any work-related issues that arise in a consistent way. This amounts to having a set of principles by which you live your professional life. This is particularly important when you’re under stress, because that’s when impulsive or “out of character” decisions are made. At such times remind yourself of the need for consistency: take a step back and examine the decision in the light of your principles.
Consistency is important; any inconsistency, though not apparent to you, will be quite evident to those who report to you.
4. Treat failures as learning experiences: Despite everyone’s best efforts, there are times when things go wrong; sometimes badly wrong. At such points it is important to remember that mistakes happen. Identifying and berating a scapegoat may feel good for a moment or two but the satisfaction soon fades, leaving you with a very upset team member. Instead of looking to anoint a scapegoat, find out what went wrong and why, and what might have been done to avoid it. This should be done dispassionately, with a no-blame attitude even if the offender is responsible for a mess up.
5. Don’t “crunch credit”: Often a manager will get the credit for work done by his or her team. This is natural because the manager is the public face of the team. Unfortunately in some of these cases, the manager hogs the credit, barely acknowledging the efforts of his or her team. The right thing to do, of course, is to pass the plaudits on to the team, ensuring that those involved are recognised and rewarded appropriately. The latter is important: the rewards should be appropriate (no lucite plaques!).
6. Offer opportunities to learn new skills: Doing the same thing over and over again gets boring. To maintain the interest and engagement of people in their work, it is critical to offer them opportunities to do new things. Ideally you would have the means to send them to external courses, but sometimes that isn’t possible. However, it is always possible to give people a chance to pick up new skills whilst on the job. Admittedly this is somewhat easier in IT, where even a small corporate IT shop would have a range of technologies – certainly enough to offer people something new to learn. However, people need the time (and official sanction) to do this – and that’s where the manager comes in.
7. Empower people to make decisions: People should be able to make decisions regarding how they do their jobs. This helps in two ways:
Decisions get made at the level at which work is done.
Folks who do the work feel in control of what they do, and are able to fulfil their potential.
See my post entitled Empowered or Not – a litmus test of organisational culture for more.
The points listed above are based on personal experience. They’ve worked well for me in many different contexts ranging from projects to corporate environments. I can attest to their effectiveness in improving team motivation and morale which, in turn, leads to improved productivity and results.
To summarise: push people to achieve results and you’ll get neither results nor a happy team; improve team motivation, though, and you’ll get both in spades.