We are social creatures. We desire and attempt to maintain relationships wherever we are. In other words, we try to fit in with other people. This is true whether we are talking about family, work or just out in public with people we don’t know. The research is pretty clear….our decisions and actions are impacted by the people around us. Take the classic research of Solomon Asch (1955; 1956) which demonstrates the power of groups (normative influence) on our decision making. The experimental task was simple….select which one of three comparison lines match the standard where one line was obviously longer and one obviously shorter. The catch was that the experimental subject was grouped with varying numbers of confederates who would select an obviously wrong answer. The results were consistent….participants were likely to go along with the group even when the answers were obviously wrong and this conformity increased as group size increased. Additional research by Asch demonstrated that conformity decreases by approximately 25% with just one dissenter, suggesting that people want to make the correct decision and they don’t need a lot of support from group members to do so. The implication is that people tend to conform to group norms if everyone agrees, but are willing to dissent if there is any sort of disagreement among group members. The reason people are willing to go along with a group even when the decision is obviously wrong is because of fear of rejection and research provides ample evidence that rejection is a very common result of dissension with group decisions (see Tata, et al, 1996). There is a second reason that people go along with the group in addition to the desire to be liked and to fit in (normative influence). Research demonstrates that we go along with the group on many occasions because we think the group knows more about the correct decision than we do (informational influence). Two types of situations produce informational influence: (1) ambiguous situations in which a decision is difficult, and (2) crisis situations in which people don’t have time to really think for themselves. While (2) is pretty uncommon, (1) is very common in the workplace, especially with new hires. Less experienced employees don’t want to be rejected by the group, but additionally don’t have the experience to make thoughtful decisions when faced with situations that they have not encountered before. This is especially true when they are observing more experienced employees who don’t view the situation as ambiguous at all and don’t seem to hesitate when making a decision, even when the decision leads to an unsafe action. These types of decisions become automatic….just the way we do it around here. While peer pressure can be a bad thing if it leads to undesired behavior, it can also be a “good” thing if it leads to positive, safe, desired behavior. Understanding the power of peer pressure and the accepted, automatic nature of responding within an organization can help you create a safety culture where peer pressure leads to safe performance and a decrease in undesired behaviors and resulting incidents.
Have you ever experienced the mental anguish of trying to perform a new and complex task? Something that requires so much mental and maybe even physical dexterity that it takes you a while to problem solve and get it right? I would imagine that most of us have experienced this innumerable times in our lives and, if replicated enough times, that task eventually becomes something of a second nature. This concept was actually captured quite well by Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. Kahneman talks about this second nature mental tasks as System I thinking and the more complex and process heavy tasks as System II. Put simply, things that we do without even really thinking about it, like a skilled typist putting her fingers on the correct keys when she constructs an email, as System I tasks. However, a person new to typing would have to try to remember where each key is located or maybe even look at the keyboard itself to find that ever elusive “X” key and this type of processing would be System II thinking. Understanding Kahneman’s description of System I and System II thinking, however, is only a part of the brain science of human performance. As we like to say it, the human brain does three things repetitively and expertly; Problem Solve (System II), Automate (System I), and finally generalize, and it does all of this while interfacing with the world in a sometimes distorted manner.
Let’s see if we can break this down somewhat sequentially, although much of this happens simultaneously in the real world. Problem solving a new task at work, as mentioned before, can be complex and mentally taxing. You see, our brains are taking in all of the relevant information in performing this task while also trying to process extraneous context such as peer approval, time pressures, available resources, family issues, what’s for dinner, etc., etc. Once all of this data is processed and the task is completed successfully our brain feels like the problem solving job is completed and wants to move on to the next task. This is where automation comes in.
The human brain really isn’t capable of multi-tasking at any level of effectiveness. While it may perform multiple tasks at the same time, it can’t really process two System II tasks simultaneously. Therefore it wants to automate tasks (System I) so that it can be ready for the next System II task. Automation may take time to fully take hold but once it does it is often communicated as, “this is how I’ve always done it” or “that’s just how we do things around here”, but at some point that task was new and a System II process. The problem with automation is that we don’t realize that we are in automation. We don’t feel the mental strain of these automated tasks and don’t even realize that we are involved in them hundreds, maybe even thousands of times a day. But our brain isn’t finished trying to be efficient, not only does it want to automate tasks, it also wants to generalize tasks or behaviors that seem to be somewhat related. Basically our brain says, “if that works here then it must work there as well”. In that moment of trying to be super efficient our brains have bypassed the entire problem solving process for future tasks that seem to be related to the automated tasks that we have already problem solved. This would seem to be highly efficient, but it can also lead to errors. In two weeks we’ll revisit a previous topic…..the distorted view of context in the problem solving process (cognitive biases)…..and then also examine how we can make this brain science work in our favor.
Emails have become a valuable and indispensable part of our lives, both personally and at work. We provide information, seek information and maintain a record of the email communications that we have had so that we can go back and remember those “conversations”. Most of us don’t think much about the form of our emails, we just write and send them. But have you ever received an email that made you angry, or made you feel disrespected? I have had several conversations with people about this very issue over the past few weeks, so I thought it might be an issue that needs addressing. I remember that when email first came on the scene it was viewed as an electronic version of a letter. Formal business letters have a certain format including a salutation, a body and a closing. Following this format was/is expected and as a result helped shape the individual and company image and simultaneously communicated respect to the person receiving the letter. Emails have changed over the years and I think have taken more of a “text” or “message” format. These latter formats are based on brevity and often include abbreviations and even acceptable “bad grammar”, and many times exclude the salutation and/or the closing. People have come to expect that type of format in texts, but what about emails? I think the answer to this question is that “it depends on who is communicating with whom about what”. It goes without saying that if you have something to say to someone that has negative emotional content, don’t send it in an email, rather do it face-to-face or at least over the phone when face-to-face is impossible. But even non-emotionally laden content can be misunderstood. For me, the key is to always think about how the other person could interpret (or misinterpret) the message and always communicate with respect. A salutation as simple as “Hi, Joe” or “Good Morning, Joe” can help to set the stage for a more positive reading of the content. Likewise, clear communicative language in the message body even to the point of clarifying your intent can help to eliminate misinterpretation. Obviously your relationship with the person receiving the email will guide the language and format that you use, but it never hurts to be polite, even with those with whom you have a good long-term relationship. Also, when receiving an email, don’t be so quick to jump to negative interpretation of ambiguous content. Give the person the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they did not intend to be disrespectful or otherwise negative and check it out before responding back with a short, curt email of your own that was intended to “get even”. Emails can be a valuable, time saving tool unless they create misunderstanding and conflict that is unnecessary and counterproductive. Take a moment to think about what you are writing in your email and then re-read what you have written before you hit send. It could save you a lot of time and relationships if you do.
Do you ever have trouble remembering someone’s name, or a task that you were supposed to have accomplished but didn’t, or maybe how to safely execute a procedure that you don’t do very often? I know…. you can’t remember! Well if you do forget then you are perfectly normal. Forgetting is a cognitive event that everyone experiences from time to time, but why? What causes us to forget and is there anything we can do about it? Bottom line is that when we forget, we have either failed to encode the information into long-term-memory (LTM), which means we don’t have the information stored in the first place, or we have failed to retrieve it effectively. The failure to remember the name of someone that we have just met is probably an encoding failure because we don’t move the person’s name from working memory to LTM and it just disappears or gets knocked-out because of the short-term nature of working memory. To get it into LTM we have to “elaborate” on the information in some way, maybe with a rhyme, or rehearsal, or some other mnemonic technique. The problem is that most of us either don’t expend the effort needed to transfer information like names of people we probably won’t meet again to LTM, or other information that comes in right after we hear the name interferes with transfer. But what about information that is important, like a meeting that we scheduled for 10:00 AM next Monday with a coworker about an important project that we are working on, or wearing your safety glasses when using a grinder in your home workshop? Both are important but might require different assistance to avoid forgetting. Maybe you put the meeting on your calendar but didn’t create a reminder because this is an important meeting and you will certainly not forget to check your calendar Sunday night. But you were busy watching Sunday Night Football and didn’t check your calendar and when you got a call from your coworker at 10:10 on Monday morning asking why you weren’t in the meeting, you were totally shocked that you hadn’t remembered the event. Maybe you began operating your grinder without putting on your safety glasses because the glasses weren’t readily available. These types of retrieval failures are most likely caused by something that impacts us all….interference at retrieval. There has been a lot of research into the effects of interference on memory both at encoding and at retrieval and the evidence is pretty clear…..retrieval is cue dependent (a context effect) in that it is stimulated by hints and clues from the external and internal environment (i.e., our context). If the salient cues that were present at encoding are present at retrieval, then you are less likely to forget, i.e. have a retrieval failure. The more similar the context at encoding and retrieval the greater the chances of remembering. Interference by dissimilar cues like the report that you started working on at 8:00 AM on Monday when you got to work increase the chances of forgetting the meeting. Or not having safety glasses readily available and obvious on the grinder. The way we can capitalize on the strengths of our brains and overcome it’s short comings is to better understand how our brains work. In the case of the meeting, creating cues that will be present at both encoding and retrieval is very helpful. Creating a reminder when putting the event on your calendar and then experiencing that same reminder cue before the meeting, or putting the meeting on your to-do list and then visualizing your to-do list at the beginning of the day are things that capitalize on our brain’s strengths and help avoid its weaknesses. But what about remembering to wear your safety glasses when operating a grinder? Something as simple as hanging safety glasses on the grinder switch can help. Also, research has clearly demonstrated that emotional cues tied to information at encoding increase the chances of accurate retrieval. Creating a visual image of an eye injury or hearing/reading a vivid story of a real grinder related eye injury will increase the chances that simply seeing the grinder will cause you to remember to put on your safety glasses. The bottom line is that the more we understand how we function cognitively, the better able we are to create contexts that help us remember and succeed.
If you’ve been reading our blogs for some time you know that we center our approach to human performance around the idea of “context”. Context is at the heart of the science of Human Factors, also referred to as “ergonomics”. Human Factors involves understanding and integrating humans with the systems that they must use to succeed and context is central to that understanding. To say that we are a product of our environment is accurate, but far too simplistic for those attempting to be more intentional in changing performance. A practical way to look at context is to think of the world around us as composed of pieces of information that we must process in order to successfully interact with our environment. These pieces of information include the other people, physical surroundings, weather, rules, laws, timing, and on and on and on. The breakdown in this process is when it comes time for us to crunch that data and react to it. Our brains, at the time of this writing, still have the edge on computers in that we can intentionally take in data rather than passively waiting for something else to give us the data, and we can then decide how we behave with respect to that data where a computer is programmed to behave in predictable ways. However, at times, that unpredictability could also be a weakness for humans.
The two most glaring weaknesses in processing the data are topics that we have written about just recently (Hardwired Blog and Cognitive Bias Blog). The first of these can be explained by staying with our computer analogy. For those of you that understand computer hardware, you would never spend your money on a new computer that has a single core processor, which means it can only process one job at a time. While our brains aren’t exactly single core processors, they are close. We can actually do two jobs at a time, just not very well and we bounce back and forth between these jobs more than we actually process them simultaneously. Due to this, our brains like to automate as many jobs as possible in order to free itself up to process when the time comes. This automatic (System 1) processing impedes our more in-depth System 2 processing and while necessary for speedy success, it can also lead to errors due to failure to include relevant data. In other words, while living most of our lives in System I is critical to our survival, it is also a weakness as there are times that we don’t shift into System II when we should, we stay in automation. Unfortunately we are also susceptible to cognitive biases, or distortions in the way we interact with the reality of our context. You can read more about these biases (here) but just know that our brains have a filter in how we intake the data of our context and those distortions can actually change the way our brains work.
So what are some examples of how context has shaped behavior and performance?
- Countries that have round-a-bouts (or traffic circles) have lower vehicle mortality rates because the accidents that occur at intersections are side swipes rather than t-bones.
- People that live in rural areas tend to be more politically conservative and those in urban areas tend to be more politically liberal. The reason is that those living in smaller population densities tend to be more self-reliant and those living in higher population densities rely on others, in particularly, government services.
- People who work in creative fields, (artists, writers, musicians, etc.) are more creative when they frequently change the environment where they do their work. The new location stimulates the executive center of the brain.
- Painting the holding facilities of people arrested under the influence of alcohol a particular shade of pink has proven to lower violent outbursts. *Read the book “Drunk Tank Pink”, it’s genius.
- A person that collapses due to acute illness in a street is less likely to be provided aid by other people if that street has heavy foot traffic. The fewer people that are around the more likely one of those people will provide aid.
- As a hiring manager, I’m more likely to hire a person whose name is common and which matches my age expectation.
- School yard fights increase during the spring time when the wind blows harder causing the children to become irritable.
These are all examples of how the context around us can change our behaviors and performance. If we can start looking at our context in more intentional ways and engineering it to be more conducive to high performance, we will ultimately be better at everything we do, at work and home.
Our loyal readers are quite familiar with our 2010 research into safety interventions in the workplace and the resulting SafetyCompass® Intervention training that resulted from that research. What you may not know is why we started that research to begin with. For years we had heard client after client explain to us their concerns over their observation programs. The common theme was that observation cards were plentiful when they started the program but submissions started to slow down over time. In an attempt to increase the number of cards companies instituted various tactics to increase the number of cards submitted. These tactics included such things as communicating the importance of observation cards, rewards for the best cards, and team competitions. These tactics proved successful, in the short term, but didn’t have sustainable impact on the number or quality of cards being turned in. Eventually leadership simply started requiring that employees turn in a certain number of cards in a given period of time. They went on to tell us of their frustration when they began receiving cards that were completely made up and some employees even using the cards as a means to communicate their dissatisfaction with their working conditions rather than safety related observations. They simply didn't know what to do to make their observation programs work effectively. As we spoke with their employees we heard a different story. They told us about the hope that they themselves had when the program was launched. They were excited about the opportunity to provide information about what was really going on in their workplace so they could get things fixed and make their jobs safer. They began by turning in cards and waiting to hear back on the fixes. When the fixes didn’t come they turned in more cards. Sometimes they would hear back in safety meetings about certain aspects of safety that needed to be focused on, but no real fixes. A few of them even told us of times that they turned in cards and their managers actually got angry about the behaviors that were being reported. Eventually they simply stopped turning in cards because leadership wasn’t paying attention to them and it was even getting people in trouble. Then leadership started giving out gift cards for the best observation cards so they figured they would turn a few in just to see if they could win the card. After all, who couldn’t use an extra $50 at Walmart? But even then, nothing was happening with the cards they turned in so they eventually just gave up again. The last straw was when their manager told them they had to turn in 5 per week. They spoke about the frustration that came with the added required paperwork when they knew nobody was looking at the cards anyway. As one person put it, “They’re just throwing them into a file cabinet, never to be seen again”. So the obvious choice for this person was to fill out his 5 cards every Friday afternoon and turn them in on his way out of the facility. It seemed that these organizations were all experiencing a similar Observation Program Death Spiral.
The obvious question is why? Why would such a well intentioned and possibly game changing program fail in so many organizations? After quite a bit of research into these organizations the answer became clear, they weren’t intervening. Or more precisely, they weren’t intervening in a very specific manner. The intent of observation programs is to provide data that shows the most pervasive unsafe actions in our organizations. If we, as the thought goes, can find out what unsafe behaviors are most common in our organization, then we can target those behaviors and change them. The fundamental problem with that premise is that behaviors are the cause of events (near misses, LTA, injuries, environmental spills, etc.). Actually, behaviors themselves are the result of something else. People don’t behave in a vacuum, as if they simply decide that acting unsafely is more desirable than acting safely. There are factors that drive human behaviors, the behavior themselves are simply a symptom of something else in the context surrounding and embedded in our organizations. Due to this fact, trending behaviors as a target for change efforts is no different than doctors treating the most common symptoms of disease, rather than curing the disease itself.
A proper intervention is essentially a diagnosis of what is creating behavior. Or, to steal the phrase from the title of our friend Todd Conklin's newest book, a pre-accident investigation. An intervention program equips all employees with the skills to perform these investigations. When they see an unsafe behavior, they intervene in a specific way that allows them to create immediate safety in that moment, but they also diagnose the context to determine why it made sense to behave that way to begin with. Once context is understood, a targeted fix can be put into place that makes it less likely that the behavior happens in the future. The next step in an Intervention Program is incredibly important for organizational process improvement. Each intervention should be recorded so that the context (equipment issues, layout of workplace, procedural or rule discrepancies, production pressure, etc.) that created that behavior can be gathered and trended against other interventions. Once a large enough sample of interventions is created, organizations can then see the interworking of their work environment. Rather than simply looking at the total number of unsafe behaviors being performed in their company (e.g. not tying off at heights) they can also understand the most common and salient context that is driving those behaviors. Only then does leadership have the ability to put fixes into place that will actually change the context in which their employees perform their jobs and only then will they have the ability to make sustainable improvement.
Tying it back to observation programs
The observation program death spiral was the result of information that was not actionable. Once a company has data that is actionable, they can then institute targeted fixes. Organizations that use this approach have actually seen an increase in the number of interventions logged into the system. The reason is that the employees actually see something happening. They see that their interventions are leading to process improvement in their workplace and that’s the type of motivation that no $50 gift card could ever buy.
If you work in the airline or healthcare industries, you are probably already familiar with Crew Resource Management (CRM) training. CRM training was an outgrowth of evaluations of catastrophic airline crashes that were deemed to be due to “human error”. The original idea behind CRM was to capitalize on the knowledge and observations of other crew/team members when the pilot or doctor was seen doing something that could lead to an incident. The goal is to help crew members develop the skills necessary to successfully anticipate and recognize hazards and then correct the situation. Recently, the energy industry has begun to provide guidelines for member companies to implement CRM training in an attempt to avoid catastrophic events like the Macondo and Montara blowouts.* CRM training focuses on six non-technical areas needed to reduce the chances of “human error”. These six areas are:
- Situation Awareness This involves vigilance and the gathering, processing and understanding of information relative to current or future risk.
- Decision Making This involves skills needed to evaluate information prior to determining the best course of action, selecting the best option and implementing and evaluating decisions.
- Communication This involves skills needed to clearly communicate information, including decisions so that others understand their role in implementation. It also involves skills for speaking up when another person is observed acting in an unsafe manner.
- Teamwork This involves an understanding of current team roles and how each individual's performance and interaction with others (including conflict resolution) can impact results.
- Leadership This involves the skills and attributes needed to have others follow when necessary. It also includes the ability to plan, delegate, direct and facilitate as needed.
- Factors that impact human performance Typically this category has focused on stress and fatigue as contributors to unsafe actions or conditions. However, drawing from the wealth of Human Factors research, we view this category more broadly and feel that it includes the many ways in which human performance is impacted by the interaction between people and their working contexts.
We have been writing on these skill areas in our blogs and newsletters for several years and thought that some of our work on these subjects might be beneficial to our readers who are either currently working to implement CRM training or evaluating the need to do so. If you have been following our writings, you will already know that we take a Human Factors approach to performance improvement (including safety performance), which involves an understanding of the contextual factors that impact performance deemed to be “human error”. It is our view that, while human error is almost always a component of failure, it is seldom the sufficient cause. We hope that this link to our archive of Crew Resource Management related posts will be useful and thought-provoking. For ease of access, you can either click on one of the six CRM skill sets described above, or the Crew Resource Management link, which includes all related writings from the six skill sets.
*OGP: Crew Resource Management for Well Operations, Report 501, April, 2014. IOGP: Guidelines for implementing Well Operations Crew Resource Management training, Report 502, December, 2014 The EI Report: Guidance on Crew Resource Management (CRM) and non-technical skills training programmes, 1st edition, 2014.
We have spent a lot of time talking about the side of accountability that involves correcting failure. But if you will recall our discussion in January, accountability actually involves an examination of the facts/reasons underlying a specific event/result (accounting) followed by the application of appropriate consequences for those actions and results in an attempt to more predictably have success going forward. In other words, accountability involves first the identification of both failure and success, followed by an examination of the underlying reasons for the failure/success and then the determination of the appropriate consequences to help sustain the success or eliminate the failure in the future. This month we would like to discuss the appropriate application of consequences following success so that we will have a greater chance of sustaining good performance going forward. But why is this important anyway? When we ask supervisors/managers what they really want from their employees we get a very consistent response…..”We want employees who give us good results and who take initiative!” My response to this is that the two are highly interrelated. Let me explain what I mean by this. People who take initiative are people with high levels of Self-Esteem or Self-Confidence which is developed from meaningful (to the person) accomplishment followed by recognition by someone significant to the individual. In most cases the supervisor/manager has a significant level of control over both of those variables, i.e. they control the tasks that the employee is allowed to engage in, they control recognition and they are significant to their employees (in most cases). Obviously, for success to occur while engaging in meaningful tasks, there needs to be support through training, necessary resources, etc. and when success occurs there needs to be the appropriate application of recognition, or what psychologists call “reinforcement”. Reinforcement by definition is a consequence that when following a behavior increases the likelihood that the behavior will reoccur in the future. If that reinforcement is recognition by a significant person then it will also serve the function of increasing self-confidence and the likelihood of initiative. It is important that the recognition follows some important guidelines however. Let’s look at four important aspects of reinforcement; What, When, Where and How.
WHAT. The rule here is to reinforce the behavior/performance that you want to continue and not the person. This focus on behavior ties the reinforcement to that behavior in the future and is what increases it’s chances of reoccurrence. This will also act to increase self-esteem even though you do not focus on the individual. For example, saying….”Thank you. You got that report in on time and with no errors” is much more effective than, “Thank you. You are becoming a very reliable employee.” While the latter may make the person feel better, it does nothing to point out exactly what you want going forward.
WHEN. Reinforcement is not always appropriate as we will discuss below, but when it is it has been demonstrated that reinforcement that immediately follows an action is in most cases the most powerful and effective. While some delay may be necessary in some cases, waiting until the annual performance appraisal is certainly not the best option.
WHERE. While failure should always be redirected in private, success should be reinforced in public in most cases. Public recognition does two things, it makes the person look good in front of peers and at the same time demonstrates your expectations to others on your team. It must always however be appropriately done as we will discuss below.
- Keep it brief and simple. It should, in most cases take only a few words and therefore a few seconds to reinforce performance. If you feel it is necessary to explain in more detail the exact performance/result then do so, but don’t carry on forever. You will lose the person’s attention and perhaps even embarrass the person in front of peers.
- Be genuine. Let the person know that you truly appreciate their success and expect it to continue into the future. Sarcasm has no place in the application of reinforcement.
- Make it appropriate to the level of performance. Most of the time a simple “thank you” with a connection to the successful performance is appropriate, but when the result is significant and worthy of additional recognition, just make sure that it fits. For example, if the person has contributed beyond expectations and their impact has had a noticeable impact on revenue, then a bonus might be in order. Failure to evaluate the appropriateness of recognition could lead to reduced performance in the future.
- Be consistent among employees. While meaningfulness varies among employees the need for recognition doesn’t. Make sure that you find what is meaningful for each employee and apply recognition where appropriate in a consistent manner.
- Avoid scheduled or predictable recognition. Psychological research shows that variable (unpredictable) reinforcement is more effective for behaviors that have been learned. While teaching a skill the application of continuous reinforcement is best, but after the skills is learned change to a less frequent, less predictable schedule and you will find that employees will be successful for a longer period of time.
What’s the point?
Sustained successful performance accompanied by initiative requires self confidence. Meaningful accomplishment followed by recognition by a significant person helps to create that self confidence and thus sustained success. If you are a supervisor (or a parent) you have more control over this process than you might imagine.
We have trained leaders, managers and supervisors in a lot of companies and almost all of those companies had some form of progressive discipline policy. The term “discipline” implies that the person receiving it has done something wrong or failed to follow rules, policies or procedures and you are trying to motivate the person with negative consequences to do it right in the future. As we discussed previously, motivation is just one of many possible reasons for failure and discipline seldom impacts performance when motivation is not the cause. When lack of motivation is the cause, understanding the consequences of continued failure can be a powerful tool for getting performance improvement. So how should you go about “progressive discipline”? We suggest a four step process beginning with an exploration of the causes of the initial failure and ending with “termination of employment” if the other three steps don’t work. Let’s look at these in order. Please note that the labels we use may be different than the ones used in your organization but hopefully the progression is similar. You should always check your organizations progressive discipline policy to make sure that you are in compliance. Also note that in some cases you can/should go to the last step (Termination) first, for example when the person violates a company policy on drug/alcohol use. But for now, let’s assume that we are dealing not with that type of policy violation, but with performance failure. Step 1 - Performance Redirection: This step is used when you have an initial performance failure. We call this type of failure an “episode”. This is the first time the person has failed to achieve this particular desired result and you want to get them back on track so you have a conversation to identify the failure, determine the reason the failure occurred and determine how that reason can be eliminated so that future success is ensured. In other words, you use the accountability process that we have been describing in our previous 2014 newsletters. This process should be used anytime you incur an episode, but what do you do when you have the same episode occur again on one or more occasions? Reoccurrence of a particular failure is what we call a “rerun”. It’s like watching the same TV show again. Our suggestion is that you begin by treating it the same way you did the first time to determine if the same cause is in play and why your “fix” didn’t work. If you find a different cause, then fix it, but if you find the same cause, then moving to Step 2 may be in order.
Step 2 - Corrective Counseling: There are really two objectives with Corrective Counseling; (1) to communicate the importance of improvement, and (2) to provide legal support if termination becomes necessary. This step is the same as performance redirection with one addition…“documentation”. Your organization most likely has a documentation form for you to complete to detail the conversations that you have had with this person about this continued failure, so complete it, sign it and get the employee to sign also. By the way, their signature simply indicates that they attended the meeting and received the information, not that they agree. As a matter of fact, they should be able to state in the document if they disagree. We are often asked what you should do if the employee refuses to sign the document? We suggest that you have a witness (someone at your level or higher, not a coworker of the employee) sign to indicate that the session occurred and that the employee refused to sign. Additionally, the employee should be advised that continued failure will result in Step 3. Finally, place the document in the employee’s permanent personnel file. Should the employees performance improve you can always document the improvement and put that in the file as demonstration of the improvement.
Step 3 - Corrective Action: This step is simply Corrective Counseling with one addition…some form of punitive action, e.g., time off without pay, demotion to a lower position, etc. In some organizations there is a predetermined progression of punitive action, so you should check with Human Resources to determine what that progression is. Obviously you will document, but it is also highly recommended (required in many companies) that you have a witness present when conducting a Corrective Action meeting. Again, the employee should be advised about the results of continued failure especially if Step 4 is next in the progression.
Step 4 - Employment Termination: Unlike the previous three steps, this step is not intended to motivate the individual but rather is the culmination of those previous attempts. The objective is not to “punish” the person but to communicate that their continued failure has left you with no other option but to give them the opportunity to go somewhere that they can be successful. Your organization will have specific procedures in place for this meeting and will most likely be a joint session with an HR representative and possibly your supervisor/manager. If you have followed the progressive discipline policy then this result should not be a surprise to the employee and additionally should provide the legal framework to protect the organization against a possible lawsuit.
Finding and developing successful employees is possibly the most important job of a supervisor. Progressive discipline is one of the tools that you have to help develop your employees. If you put most of your focus and effort on Step 1, you shouldn’t need Steps 2-4 very often.
What’s the Point?
Performance issues usually stem from multiple and varying factors. Rarely is motivation the only cause of poor performance. However, when motivation is the driving factor, progressive discipline can be used to affect the motivation of the employee through the use of negative consequences. The key is to always use progressive discipline in accordance with your company's policy and with guidance from your HR department. Remember the goal is to improve performance, not simply punish.
Over the past several months we have been proposing an approach for holding others accountable for failed performance that is grounded in a “contextual” diagnostic model. This model allows you to determine the “real” causes of failed performance prior to determining the “best” approach for improving that performance going forward. Last month we talked about how to effectively motivate an individual who is failing due to either a lack of intrinsic (self) motivation or a need for extrinsic motivation. Fixing the Motivated
This month we will explore how to improve performance for individuals who are motivated but for some other non-motivational reason are failing to perform in a manner that is acceptable. We can fail for a variety of reasons as we discussed in our May Newsletter (A Causation Model for Poor Performance), so determining the “real” cause is obviously required before a sustainable fix can be put into place. The key to finding and implementing an effective fix requires commitment on the part of the other person and the best way to get this commitment is for the person to come up with the fix himself. In other words the objective is to help the person determine the best fix himself so that he has ownership of the plan and thus more commitment. This means that you have to be a “facilitator” and not a “dictator”. To facilitate simply means to make it easier for something to happen. In this context it means to make it easier for the person to find a fix for the reason behind his own poor performance. Facilitating is really rather simple and only requires a few skills for success. You start by asking for their ideas about how to fix it by using a simple open ended question like…..” What is something we can do to fix this?” or “Do you have any ideas for fixing this?” Asking a question such as…..”Do you think we should send you to training?” is not an open ended question because it suggests a specific solution that is your idea and not the other person’s. Remember, the objective is to get his ownership and if the plan is his then he owns it. Be careful not to criticize or belittle ideas or the person will most likely become defensive and stop offering ideas. If the person offers a fix that won’t work, explore why it won’t work. Don’t just say, “That won’t work”. Ask them to think about the natural consequences, or outcomes of their plan to help them see why it might not be the best approach.
Dealing with Complexity
Remember, failure can be due to more than one reason and fixing only part of the problem will most likely not lead to sustainable success. For example, let’s assume that the person does not have the knowledge to perform successfully and they are experiencing pressure from you to perform quickly. Providing the person with training will only solve part of the issue and will require that you determine how you are creating the pressure that is effecting performance. This may require that you “drill down” by asking additional questions to determine exactly why the person is feeling undue pressure and how that pressure is helping to create failure. Remember to monitor your defensiveness here because that could stop the facilitative process in it’s tracks. One additional skill that is required is to “listen completely”. Listening is more than just “hearing” what the other person is saying, but rather is “understanding” both the words and the underlying meaning of how they are saying it. Watch for signs such as facial expression, eye contact, body posture, etc. that could indicate that the person is not saying exactly what their words are saying. Saying “that sounds good to me” while smiling and looking you in the eye is not the same as saying those same words while looking down with a “flat” expression on their face. Always ask questions to determine the real meaning of their words if you think you could be misunderstanding their true intent.
Finally, provide help in executing the plan that has been designed through facilitation. Your role as supervisor (or parent if you are applying these skills to your children) is to help the person achieve success, so following up and providing support and feedback are crucial to maintaining success going forward.
What’s the Point?
Performance issues usually stem from multiple and varying human factors. Rarely is motivation the only cause of poor performance. When we find that the performance is lacking due to factors that don't include motivation, we simply need to brainstorm ways to fix the causes. Avoid the temptation to motivate the already motivated and find a way to fix the other causes of their poor performance.
Last month we discussed how to determine the “real” reasons behind performance failure. Now that we have determined causation, this month we are going to examine one of those possible reasons for performance failure: motivation, or lack of it. But before proceeding we first need to be quite sure that motivation is indeed the driver of the poor performance. Keep in mind that the Fundamental Attribution Error leads us to make bad guesses about why people do what they do and that bad guess is often lack of motivation. Therefore, ensure that you’ve drilled down enough to determine that motivation is indeed a cause. Once you have done this it is time to motivate. What is Motivation?
I have been working with and training supervisors and managers for the past 30+ years and the issue of how to motivate employees is an issue that is always high on the list of concerns that they have. First, let’s look at what motivation is and where it comes from, and then we will look at a couple of skills that you can apply to generate the energy necessary to get the performance that you want.
For our purposes, we will define motivation as “the level of eagerness to engage in and accomplish a specific task”. We have all had situations where we couldn’t wait to get involved in an activity (motivated) and conversely we have all had situations that we dreaded and put off engaging in as long as possible (unmotivated).
Motivation comes in two forms: Extrinsic and Intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation simply means motivation from outside of the person and includes things like positive feedback, praise, money, negative feedback, etc. Intrinsic motivation comes from within the person and is commonly referred to as “self” or “achievement” motivation. It is the desire to succeed simply because you value succeeding. It is a sense of “personal pride”.
We all need and for the most part have both in our lives. We need money (extrinsic) and we like to succeed (intrinsic). When people fail because of lack of motivation, we first need to determine the source. Is it extrinsic or intrinsic? The reason for having this knowledge is because the “fix” will vary with each?
Fixing Extrinsic Motivation
Fixing extrinsic motivation is easier than intrinsic fixes because you have more direct control over extrinsic fixes.
You can provide praise for success. You can at times provide financial reward for success but throwing money at the issue is not always the best approach. You can also provide negative feedback for failure. In other words, if you determine that the problem is extrinsic motivation and you know what specific extrinsic factor is involved, you can just fix that factor and most of the time the issue will be resolved.
Often the person is not motivated because they aren’t aware of the likely extrinsic consequences of their actions. A very useful technique in this case is to “Bring Consequences to Life”.
- Help the person discover the “natural” consequences of failure.
- What impact can their continued failure have on the team? On profits? On salary increases? On their future? On their family? Etc.
- When appropriate you can also bring “imposed” consequences to life such as their continued employment, but using “threats” is less powerful than their understanding of the natural consequences of continued failure.
- Additionally, it is always better to have the person identify the consequences on their own rather than telling them. Self discovery creates more ownership and understanding which in turn creates more motivation going forward.
Fixing Intrinsic Motivation
It is much harder, however, to fix intrinsic motivation issues. When the person just doesn’t like the task or see the need to perform up to standard you have an intrinsic motivation issue.
While there are many techniques for dealing with this, I would suggest one that I have found to work most of the time: “Connect to Self-Respect”. Intrinsic motivation is directly tied to a person’s sense of self-worth, self-esteem and self-respect. The idea here is to find what the person values - how the person wants to be seen by others - and make the connection between their performance success/failure and that value.
For example, I am not intrinsically motivated to mow and trim my yard but I do want to be seen as a good neighbor who takes pride in my property and who wants to abide by city ordinances. Understanding that failure to take care of my property would be incongruent with my values motivates me to do something I don’t really like doing.
I bet you have something that you don’t like doing, too. Think about how failure to do it can impact the way you are seen by others and how it can impact the way you see yourself. In other words, when holding someone accountable for failure that is due to an intrinsic motivation issue, help them understand how continued failure is incongruent with what they value most, and how success is congruent with their values. Motivating others is more than simply giving and taking away. It is helping them understand the real impact of success and failure.
What’s the Point?
Successful performance requires both skill and motivation. When you determine that failure is due, at least in part to motivation, then your job is to determine the best approach for getting that motivation. Start by determining whether extrinsic or intrinsic motivation is the issue and then apply the appropriate tool to energize performance.
In our May Newsletter we described a Contextual Model designed to help us understand how people make decisions that impact their performance. You will recall that we focused on four general contextual factors (Self, Others, Surroundings and Systems) as primary contributors to determining performance success or failure. The salience or "relative weightiness" of specific factors within these general factors create what we called “local rationality”. Local rationality is a term to describe the fact that individuals perceive and interpret the contextual factors weighing on them in a way that is uniquely their own and makes total sense to them, irrespective of how "irrational" the interpretation appears to an onlooker. This locally perceived and vetted interpretation of the contextual factors weighing on a person, in turn, determines how the person decides, behaves, or performs.
Therefore, to accurately (and thus effectively) hold someone accountable for performance requires that we examine their context before we attempt to “fix” their performance.
We suggest four skills that when applied during an “accountability discussion”, or what we also refer to as a “re-direction” discussion, will help you get an accurate picture of the person’s context.
We have a natural tendency to want to understand and explain what we see as quickly as possible, so we have a tendency to make a guess about the causes of poor performance.
Thus the first skill:
Whether you are right or wrong in your guess, you are likely to create defensiveness and we have already talked about the negative impact that defensiveness can have on communication (Read the Blog: Dealing with Defensiveness in Relationships).
Additionally, when you guess you can unintentionally influence the person to agree with your assessment even if it is incorrect. So, instead of guessing, become curious and think to yourself...”I wonder why it makes sense to him to do that?”.
This question also weakens the influence of the Fundamental Attribution Error and allows you to entertain factors other than motivation as a cause for failure.
This leads to the second skill:
“Ask Opening Questions”
Start by making sure that your tone of voice is respectful and not accusatory which would most likely be interpreted as a guess and lead to defensiveness.
Don’t ask “Yes” or “No” type questions which would also be seen as guessing, rather simply ask the person to help you understand why they did what they did (a reflection of your curiosity question above).
For example “Can you help me understand why you are doing it this way?”
If you show genuine curiosity and not judgement you will be much more likely to get at the real reason behind the decision and behavior.
Sometimes you will only be able to identify a general contextual factor with your Opening Question, so this brings the third skill into play:
“Ask Drill Down Questions”
Remember, the objective of this discussion is to determine the real reason or reasons behind the poor performance so that you can fix it. If you didn’t get enough information from your first question, then just ask a second, more specific question (i.e., Drill Down Question).
For example Let’s say the person used the wrong tool for the job and when you ask them why they say they didn’t have the right tool. You might drill down by asking something like...”Why didn’t you have the right tool?”.
Just telling them to use the right tool might not fix the problem if the reason they don’t have the right tool is because there is only one available and someone else is using it!” Remember, drill down far enough to find the real reason(s) before you attempt to fix it.
And finally, during the whole conversation apply the fourth skill:
Listening to “what” the person is saying (their words) is only half of the process. To listen completely, you must also pay attention to “how” they are speaking, e.g. their tone of voice, their willingness to maintain eye contact, their body posture, etc. These help you understand the “real” meaning behind what they are saying and will also help you get to the real context that led them to perform as they did.
What's the Point?
Only after you have ascertained the real reason(s) do you have a sufficiently complete and accurate “accounting” of the failure. With this "accounting", you can now help find a fully informed fix that will lead to sustained improvement going forward.
We have all failed at some point to meet expectations, either our own expectations or the expectations of someone else. I would guess that most of us did not try to fail, but we did anyway. Most of us thought that we were performing well until we were either told by someone else that we weren’t or we saw the results and determined it for ourselves. The question then becomes...”Why did we fail? What caused the failure?”
Failure Failure occurs for a variety of reasons and understanding the real cause(s) of a person's failure is absolutely critical to the accountability process and to assuring future success for the individual.
Local Rationality We make decisions to perform in specific ways because it makes sense to us to do so. This is called “local rationality”. What may look ridiculous or stupid to someone else, looks perfectly correct to us because of the context that we have at that moment.
The factors that are most obvious, pressing or significant from your point of view aren’t necessarily all that obvious, pressing or significant from another person’s point of view. However, it is that very set of factors that determines what makes sense and what doesn’t.
It is these factors that determine your decision to perform in a given manner. Sometimes these factors lead to failure while other times to success.
Context is Everything Context is everything and understanding that context is absolutely required before we can apply the “Ask” skills in an accountability conversation.
So let’s take a look at look at a contextual causation model for assessing performance.
The Contextual Model We find it helpful to think of context as involving four general factors, each made up of other specific factors which can have an impact on performance.
Gaining an understanding of which specific factors are affecting a person's performance will help us both understand the performance and determine how to help the person improve the performance going forward.
Self One of the general factors involves the individual and we call these the “Self” factors.
- Motivation: Does the person actually care about success? Is the person willing to put out the energy to perform successfully? It should be noted that we have a tendency to attribute most, if not all failure to lack of motivation when in fact it is only one of serval self factors that may be at play. Remember the Fundamental Attribution Error that we discussed last month. So be careful not to guess that failure can be fixed simply by motivating the person.
- Ability: Can the person actually engage in the performance needed for success? Do they have the skill set necessary for success or are they lacking those skills?
- Knowledge: Does the person know how to perform correctly? Have they been given the training necessary for success?
- Habits: Has the person done it the wrong way so many times that it has become engrained to the point that the person is on “auto pilot”?
- Attention: Is the person failing to focus on performing correctly? Is the person distracted for some reason? Has the person done the task so many times that he/she does it without thinking?
Others A person’s performance can also be impacted by what the people around him/her do and say, and we refer to these as the “Others” factors.
- Help: Do people in the workplace (supervisor and coworkers) provide assistance or not? Do they do things that make it difficult or easy to be successful? Do they remove or create barriers to success?
- Pressure: Is there peer pressure to perform in an unacceptable manner? Does the boss knowingly, or unknowingly push the person to perform in a manner that leads to failure? Does the boss create an environment where one aspect of success (e.g. productivity) is seen as more important than another (e.g. safety)?
- Modeling: Do others in the workplace perform in a manner that makes it seem normal to perform in a manner that leads to failure? Or do they perform in a manner that assures success?
Surroundings The workplace itself can also impact performance and we call these the “Surroundings” factors.
- Equipment: Does the person have the right tools/resources to perform successfully? Or is the person forced to adapt tools that are not really fit for the job?
- Climate: Are temperature, light, wind, or other environmental factors impacting success?
- Layout: Are things located in such a way that they make it easier or more difficult to achieve success?
Systems And finally there may be institutional factors that impact performance and we call those the “Systems” factors.
- Rules: Are there requirements from the company, customer, industry or government that make success difficult? Are there rules that are in conflict and force the person to make a choice of which one to follow?
- Rewards/Punishments: Are incentives impacting performance either positively or negatively? Does the incentive program create the need to take short cuts in order to be successful? Does the incentive program reward speed over accuracy
- Procedures: Are accepted procedures actually making success more difficult? Are there actually procedures in place that will help the person achieve success?
Think about a time when you failed to meet expectations. What factor or factors were at play to contribute to that failure? Were you held accountable and, if so, did the person holding you accountable understand why you failed? Did he/she explore your context before creating a fix for your failure?
What's the point?
Next month we will examine the four “Ask” skills that will help you use the Contextual Model to determine what exactly is contributing to an individual’s failure. This is so that you can then help them “Fix” the right things to create a context that will lead to success going forward.
As we discussed in our March Newsletter, we often fail to “Step Up” to accountability discussions even though we know that speaking up can mean the difference between good and bad results, even life and death in some cases. Why is that? Flawed Approaches
It’s usually because we have spoken up in the past and the other person either became defensive or angry or they didn’t change their performance. This was probably because we used one of three flawed approaches.
Female boss pointing a pen at her male employee
Charm We may have attempted to be really nice or charming so that the person would want to change. In other words, we tried to motivate the person to “want” to change to please us.
Push We may have attempted to push or force the person to change by using whatever power or authority that we had. Again we are attempting to motivate the person to change, but this time out of fear.
Neither of these approaches work reliably to change poor performance for the long-term, especially if the reason behind the failure is not a motivation issue. (We will have much more to say about how to determine the “real” reason for the person’s failure in our May & June Newsletter discussions).
Retreat And this leads to the third flawed approach which is to retreat or say nothing because it wouldn’t make any difference anyway. We have tried the “charm” and “push” methods and since neither worked it must be because the person is flawed…..so what is the use. It is now on them to change and if they don’t, then it is their fault, not mine.
Play it S.A.F.E.
Effective redirection of performance - which produces longterm behavior change - is possible and we have broken the process down into four practical steps.
Find a Fix
Ensure the Fix
So let’s look in more detail at how to Step Up and effectively enter that accountability discussion so that you don’t get defensiveness and/or fail to get improvement.
Our Step Up objective is to engage the person at the right time, about the right issue, in the right way, to change the poor performance.
Let’s first address the basics: Who & When and then we will examine How.
Who? The answer: You!
You can redirect anyone if you do it with the right intent (to help the person improve) and in the right way.
When? Our first reaction is to do so immediately, but there may be situations in which you should wait. If the person is doing something that presents an imminent risk (e.g. could cause them to get hurt), then intervene immediately.
Immediate redirection is usually best unless it will distract the person and put them in danger, or unnecessarily put the person on the defensive (when others are watching, for example).
So if there is no imminent danger and the person can’t pay attention or intervention could lead to “loss of face” then you should probably wait until the person can give attention to the discussion without being embarrassed by the conversation.
How? We suggest the use of three skills that will create the right environment and minimize or eliminate defensiveness.
1. State the Problem The problem statement includes two components:
“What the person is doing” & “Why it is wrong”.
When stating what the person is doing it is important to focus on the actions or results, and NOT the person. Your goal is not to blame the person for the failure, thus creating defensiveness, but rather to have a discussion around the behavior/actions that are creating the failure.
Stating why the action is wrong helps the person understand more about the context of their failure.
For Example “You haven’t turned in your report (What) and the company president needs that information for the board meeting in 10-minutes (Why)”.
Notice in this example that there is nothing about “Why” the person is failing. We don’t know that yet, so any reference to it would simply be a “Guess”. Guessing almost always leads to defensiveness and should therefore be avoided. We suggest that you always employ the next skill instead.
2. Stick to the Facts Facts are what you see and hear, and what can be seen and heard by others as well. They are not up for debate.
In the example above, it is a fact that the person either has or has not turned in the report.
It is a verifiable fact that the president needs the information contained in the report.
It is a verifiable fact that the board meeting will begin in 10-minutes.
It is a “Guess” that the person is too lazy to finish the report and suggesting that he is unmotivated would most likely lead to defensiveness.
Stick to the facts and you will have a much better chance of creating an environment that will allow for a calm evaluation of the real cause(s) of the failure when you get to the “Ask” step. However, if you still get defensiveness you can use the next skill to help diffuse it.
3. Use a Do/Don’t Statement We talked about this skill in our March Newsletter discussion of why we tend to avoid intervention discussions in the first place.
Remember, defensiveness is a perceived attack on the person's reputation, dignity, or both.
So when you sense that the person has misunderstood your intent or when you have failed to stick to the facts and made a guess, you can simply state what you 'do' mean and/or what you 'don’t' mean.
For Example “I don’t mean to imply that you are lazy at all, but we do need to get the report to the boss in time for his meeting.”
Remember, our objective is to create a setting where you and the individual can calmly explore why the failure occurred and what can be done to correct it going forward. Eliminating defensiveness is a key to making that happen.
What's the Point?
Once you have "Stepped Up" to the accountability discussion and entered it without creating defensiveness, you are now ready to explore why the failure occurred in the first place.
This requires an understanding of a contextual model of causation which we will explore in our May Newsletter.
Have you ever failed to hold someone accountable for poor performance? Perhaps it was a server in a restaurant who failed to provide good service. Perhaps it was an employee who didn’t meet stated expectations. If you are like us and the thousands of participants in our Performance Management in the Workplace™ and PerformanceCompass® classes over the last 30+ years, the answer is a resounding “YES”!
So why do we often fail to step up to the conversation needed to hold another person accountable for failure?
Female boss pointing a pen at her male employee
Well, there are probably a lot of reasons, but a research project that we conducted in 2011 sheds a lot of light on a couple of those reasons. Our research project focused on one form of workplace performance failure (unsafe actions), but the results serve as a model for any form of failure in the workplace.
The question that we posed to more than 2,600 employees was, “When you see someone doing something that is unsafe and choose not to intervene in what they are doing, what is usually the reason?”
We asked this question (and several others) to both supervisors and non-supervisors with a negligible response difference between the two groups.
Survey Says? The two primary reasons that respondents gave for not intervening (i.e. not holding the other person accountable) when they see something unsafe:
- The other person would become defensive or angry
- It would not make a difference.
These two reasons indicate a common, underlying problem. Namely, a large number of employees, including supervisors, do not hold others accountable when they see something unsafe because they either are or believe themselves to be incapable of doing so effectively. They do not believe that they can intervene in a way that stops and sustainably changes the other person’s unsafe behavior, while also preserving a respectful working relationship.
Anecdotally, when we ask supervisors in our training classes why at times they don’t step up to hold their employees accountable for other forms of performance failure, they give us the same two reasons.
Reason #1: Defensiveness All of us, at some time, have been defensive and have experienced defensiveness on the part of others. Defensiveness does not occur because of the words that are used, but because of the interpretation of the intent behind the words.
If you, or the other person interpret the intent as an attempt to harm dignity, reputation, or both, then defensiveness is most likely to occur.
Think about it; when you think someone is out to harm your dignity or reputation, don’t you become defensive and either shoot back at the person, or retreat with your feelings hurt? If you do, then you are normal.
The Solution Successfully handling defensiveness in others is critical to having the confidence to step up to accountability conversations. We suggest a simple tool/skill to help you deal with defensiveness and we call it a “do/don’t statement”.
When you sense that the other person has misinterpreted your intent then just clarify what you really intended. For example, “I don’t mean to imply that you are incompetent. I do want to make sure that we get the results that were expected.”
Notice that the order of the “do” and the “don’t” doesn’t really matter as long as you clarify your “real” intent. Of course if your real intent was to harm dignity or reputation, then an apology might be in order.
Reason #2: It would not make a difference Most of the time we don’t speak up because we have failed in our attempt to get improvement before and assume that we will fail again. This is because we have not helped the person “find a fix” for the real cause of their failure.
Stay Tuned We will talk about this in more detail in a future newsletter because there are several skills required to accurately understand the real reason(s) behind the failure and thus find a fix that will create sustained success. For now please understand that there is a simple, easy to use set of skills that will create success in accountability conversations and help create sustained performance improvement in others.
What's the Point?
While there are probably other reasons why we don’t speak up when we observe failure of all types, the two primary reasons both have to do with our doubt that we can either successfully deal with defensiveness or get sustained improvement.
Both of these reasons have associated skills that can predictably lead to success.
As we discussed in our January Newsletter, the first step to Accountability involves an examination of the facts/reasons underlying a specific event/result (accounting). In order for this process to bear fruit, it is important that we accurately and fairly evaluate the causes of the poor performance. To effectively examine the facts/reasons for a specific event/result requires that we understand how our biases could affect that evaluation. This is where Cognitive Biases can come into play. You may be saying to yourself…”I don’t have any biases. What are they talking about?”
Well, the truth is that we are all impacted by biases and much of the time for that matter.
What is a Cognitive Bias?
A Cognitive Bias is anything in our thought process that can distort the way we view things including the actions of another person.
There are a multitude of cognitive biases that have been identified and studied by psychologists, but there are two that directly impact accounting for the actions/results of another person.
One of these is what is called Confirmation Bias or the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions. In other words, we are predisposed to look for causes that confirm what we expect.
This means, for example, that if we are predisposed to view another person as competent, a hard worker and motivated, then we will tend to look for these types of behaviors in that person and also overlook behaviors that are in conflict with our preconception. Additionally, we would be more likely to account for poor performance on the basis of external factors such as lack of resources, lack of support, etc. rather than internal factors such as knowledge, ability or motivation. In other words, we would be likely to conclude that the failure was out of the person’s control.
On the other hand, if we are predisposed to view another person as incompetent, lazy and unmotivated, then we will tend to look for support of this preconception as the cause for failure and perhaps blame the person for the failure.
The Confirmation Bias is the underlying driver for a phenomenon commonly referred to as the Self Fulfilling Prophecy. This phenomenon has been demonstrated through research and personal experience in various environments and is notably reflected in the positive correlation between a supervisor’s expectations of a subordinate and that subordinate's performance.
Low, negative expectations tend to result in poor performance, whereas high, positive expectations tend to result in good performance.
Therefore, how we view an individual not only can color how we evaluate performance, but it can also determine how the individual actually performs. To fairly hold others accountable for failure we must be aware of our predispositions/biases regarding the individual and how we may have contributed to the failure in the first place.
Fundamental Attribution Error
The second Cognitive Bias related to Accountability is called the Fundamental Attribution Error.
Have you ever been driving on a three lane highway, going the speed limit in the right hand lane (left hand lane if you are from the UK) approaching an exit that you are not taking, only to have someone cut dangerously close in front of you to take the exit? What were your thoughts about the person doing the cutting? If you are like most of us you called the person a “jerk” or something worse and honked your horn or gestured “politely”.
You just attributed the other person’s actions to an internal attribute related to carelessness or some other bad motive. In other words, we view the other person as “bad” in some way.
Now, have you ever cut someone off in a similar circumstance when you were needing to get to an exit? If you are like us, and everyone else we have asked this question, then the answer is “yes”!
So why did you do it?
Probably because that “jerk” in the right hand lane wouldn't get out of the way and let you exit. In other words, your poor performance was due to external causes and not your carelessness or bad motive.
This is the Fundamental Attribution Error which says that we tend to attribute internal/motivational causes to the poor performance of others but not to our own poor performance. This cognitive bias can cause us to “jump to the conclusion” that the cause of the poor performance was due to motivation and thus interfere with our complete evaluation of other causes. Failure to accurately evaluate the “real” causes will most likely lead to consequences or corrections that will not lead to success in the future.
What's the Point?
Simply being aware that these two Cognitive Biases exist will help reduce or hopefully eliminate their impact on the accountability process.
As we will discuss in a future newsletter, starting your accounting of poor performance without “guesses” as to the cause(s) will almost always lead to a more accurate evaluation.
When we ask managers to tell us what the most difficult aspect of their job is, they many times say it is “holding other people accountable for poor performance”. When we ask them what the most important aspect of their job is, they many times say that it is “holding other people accountable for poor performance”.
So accountability is both difficult and important.
For this reason, we have decided to focus on various aspects of workplace accountability, including how to do it, in our 2014 newsletter series.
What is accountability?
We will begin our discussion this month by examining what accountability is and what it isn’t.
How many times have you heard a politician say that a government official must be held accountable for failure to manage his/her responsibilities effectively? What they really mean is that the government official should be fired for failing to do his/her job the way that the politician thinks it should be done.
Accountability is, therefore, often associated with negative consequences for failure. While this is certainly a possible outcome of the accountability process, it is certainly NOT the purpose of the process.
So, accountability is NOT simply punishing someone for failure.
As we will discuss in more detail in our October newsletter, positive feedback for success is also an important component of the accountability process.
Accountability actually involves an examination of the facts/reasons underlying a specific event/result (accounting) followed by the application of appropriate consequences for those actions and results in an attempt to more predictably have success going forward.
In other words, accountability involves first the identification of the failure or success, followed by an examination of the underlying reasons for the failure/success and then the determination of the appropriate consequences to help sustain the success or eliminate the failure in the future.
This involves evaluating and understanding actions and results in light of a complex environment that includes:
We have used the term local rationality in some of our other articles to describe why it makes sense for a person to do something that may not seem logical to someone who is either observing performance or evaluating the result after the fact. While we will discuss the components of this “Contextual Causation Model” in a future newsletter, it is important here to understand that people fail and/or succeed for a multitude of reasons and unless we understand those reasons from the person’s context, we will fail at the accountability process.
The next 11 months
We are looking forward to examining this critical set of skills over the next 11 issues of the newsletter and we hope you will join us for the discussion. If you have ever failed to hold another person accountable for failure then you might want to join us next month as we discuss the psychological reasons for not speaking up when we should.
How many times have we seen professional athletes come back from serious injury only to perform even better than they did prior to the injury? Think about Minnesota Vikings running back, Adrian Peterson, who suffered a season ending ACL/MCL knee injury on December 26, 2011. Peterson fought back to start in Week 1 of the 2012 NFL season and ultimately finished just nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single season rushing record!
There is something about adversity that, for champions, increases desire to succeed rather than desire to give up.
The same is true for highly effective organizations, i.e. they are resilient. They bounce back from significant (even catastrophic) events to resume the same or even better performance than they had prior to the adversity. They use the adversity as a catalyst to innovate and improve.
Break Through or Break Down
Why do some organizations demonstrate resilience while others collapse in the face of adversity? The simple answer to this question is that the resilient have already created a culture based on the characteristics that we have been discussing throughout this 2013 newsletter series. Resilience is not a characteristic that can stand alone, but rather is the result of creating an environment of effectiveness that can not only withstand adversity, but can improve because of it.
Let’s review the other 10 characteristics of an "Effective Organization" in light of what they mean for resiliency.
1. Clearly define and communicate mission, goals, values, and expectations.
- In the face of adversity, resilient organizations stay true to their purpose, but not necessarily to their strategy.
- That is, they find another way to achieve their reason for existence rather than stubbornly adhering to the way they have done it in the past.
- In other words, they innovate.
2. Align all aspects of the organization including people, systems and processes.
- In the face of adversity, resilient organizations re-align the organizational components with the new strategy.
3. Model and develop Facilitative-Relational Leadership throughout the organization.
- Leadership style doesn’t change because of difficulty, rather it becomes even more manifest.
- In the face of adversity, facilitative-relational leaders actively solicit ideas from team members in an attempt to identify the most effective tactics and to increase commitment from those required to implement those tactics.
4. Hold everyone accountable with both positive and negative consequences for results.
- Resilient organizational leaders understand that accountability, not blame is the key to improvement and success.
5. Build a collaborative and empowered environment based upon teamwork.
- Just as in the “good” times, “hard” times require that people work together and make judicious and timely decisions for success.
- Organizations that already have this type of environment are more likely to weather difficult situations.
6. Tolerate appropriate risk taking and learn from both success and failure in an attempt to be innovative.
- Effective organizational leaders understand that while implementing a new or modified strategy there will be risks and that there will be both successes and failures.
- They also understand the need to learn from failure and to celebrate success.
7. Focus on meeting customer expectations and needs.
- Customer focus is essential to success all the time, but especially in the face of adversity.
- Understanding the customer's perception of the organization's response to that adversity is critical to both the development and implementation of the new strategy.
8. Create a culture based on honesty, integrity and mutual respect.
- It goes without saying that trust is the basis for success and organizations that have it are much more likely to succeed in the face of adversity than those who don’t.
9. Identify meaningful measurements and timely feedback.
- Strategy change often requires different measurements to determine how the strategy is working and likewise requires feedback to determine whether change is required moving forward.
10. Insist on open communication throughout the organization.
- It is very easy to become focused when times are tough and to forget to communicate, but resilient organizations are diligent in increasing communication when faced with adversity.
- Leaders understand that failure to communicate will create an environment of “guessing” and much of the time that guessing is wrong and counter productive.
What's the point?
Organizations that are effective in the good times are much more likely to have created a culture that will respond effectively to adversity. There is a good chance that they will become even better because of the adversity. Those organizations that are not effective in the good times will be much more likely to fail when the times get tough.
While it can certainly be argued that revenue is the “life blood” of an organization, it can also be argued that communication is the Central Nervous System (CNS). Just as with the human body, without a functioning CNS the blood will not flow. The CNS (effective communication) creates a connection with every component of a healthy, effective organization and allows the individual components to function as a whole. My physician friends could probably find holes in my analogy, but I think it makes the point that without effective, open and flowing communication throughout the entire organization there will be a higher probability of system failure. Leaders of effective organizations understand the critical importance of open, clear and flowing communication to the success of their organizations and they insist on it.
For 30+ years we have asked our students in both management and communication courses to tell us why they think communication is so important and we always get responses like the following:
- You can’t get good results without it.
- It is central to being both efficient and effective.
- You can’t have a high level of job satisfaction without it.
- It is the key to providing quality products and services.
- It is the key to creating a safe workplace.
- It keeps everyone going in the same strategic direction.
- It is critical to healthy relationships.
- It is critical to happiness.
...just to name a few. The value of open communication has been easy enough for our students to identify, but experiencing those benefits requires intentionality -- at the individual and organizational level.
Hardware & Software
Open communication involves the flow of information between departments and individuals that is required to achieve the results needed for organizational success. To accomplish this, effective leaders put in place the communication hardware needed within the organization. Highly effective organizations also provide the necessary communication software in the form of training to utilize the hardware and to deal effectively with the conflict that can arise in the normal flow of everyday work life.
Effective leaders know that conflict, if handled well, can lead to innovation. They also know that if conflict is not handled well it can lead to organizational failure. They know that when people are not talking, they are usually “guessing” about the intent behind the actions of other people and that those guesses are usually negative and thus conflict producing. So to deal with the conflict before it can create failure, they teach team members to:
- stop the guessing
- ask to determine true intent
- and then resolve the conflict in a mutually beneficial manner.
If you have attended either our SafetyCompass® or PerformanceCompass® training, you will recognize this as the SAFE process for dealing with any form of failure. This applies to dealing with unsafe actions, but it also works when dealing with conflict.
What's the point?
Understanding that our bad guesses can lead to closed communication is the first step to helping to open up communications within an organization. This process is what “open communication” is really all about.
There is an old saying in management circles that “you won’t predictably get what you don’t predictably measure”. Likewise, “you can’t measure what you don’t define.” Effective organizations do both.....they define and measure. In Effective Organization Characteristic #1, we discussed how effective organizations communicate not only mission, goals and values, but also performance and results expectations as a means of providing a clear definition of what results are expected. This definition and communication of expectations occurs throughout the organization, from top management down through the front lines.
Individuals must understand how their performance fits into the overall performance of the organization and what specific results are required for that to occur. This requires that managers and supervisors make sure that their employees understand those expectations through regular and effective dialogue. While definition of expectations is absolutely required for effectiveness, measurement of and feedback concerning performance is also critical for success of both the individual and the organization.
Measurements can be either qualitative (no numerical value) or quantitative (based on numerical value). Most organizations use both, but those that are highly effective focus decision making on quantitative measurements of performance. They identify particular measurements that are associated with achievement of their objectives and monitor those measurements over time. These measurements are often referred to as “Key Performance Indicators (KPI)” because they are central (Key) to evaluating the effectiveness of various efforts, both at the individual and organizational levels.
Leading & Lagging Indicators
Performance measurement can, and should focus not only on the output (results), but also on the process of achieving that output. Effective organizations actually focus more on what are referred to as “Leading Indicators” associated with the process than they do on “Lagging Indicators” associated with the output. They are obviously interested in final results but they understand that the success of the process is directly related to the success of the output.
For example, when attempting to impact safety performance, effective organizations measure Leading Indicators such as frequency of engaging in specific unsafe behaviors and frequency of intervention by another person when observing a person engage in an unsafe action. These Leading Indicators are related to Lagging Indicators such as Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR).
These effective organizations find that reducing unsafe behavior through intervention by another person leads to the desired reduction of TRIR and thus are better measurements of safety performance than TRIR. The key is to evaluate the result desired and the process for achieving that result with the use of KPI’s that are meaningfully associated with that result from both a leading and lagging perspective.
If no one knows the results of the measurement, then the measurement will have no effect on future performance. It would be like trying to adjust your speed in an automobile to the legal posted speed without looking at the speedometer. You might get close but you would probably not be as close (effective) in driving the speed limit as you would if you monitored your speed quantitatively.
Effective organizations identify methods for allowing employees to get regular and predictable feedback on performance (KPI’s) for both personal and organizational performance. In Effective Organization Characteristic #4, we discussed how effective organizations hold people accountable for results in the sense of “accounting” for and understanding why those results were achieved. This accounting requires both measurement of performance and feedback about the results of that measurement.
Feedback, as with accountability, does not require the application of a consequence (either positive or negative), however a consequence may be associated with the feedback as appropriate. For example, when you monitor your speedometer while driving there is not always a consequence unless you happen to be speeding and a police officer is also monitoring your speed. Your measurement (monitoring) may, however, result in a correction to the legal speed prior to a ticket.
What's the point?
This is what effective organizations do. They monitor performance at all levels and provide appropriate, quantitative, predictable feedback that will lead to the best performance and results possible.