Measurement: A Critical Aspect of Structure in the Workplace

February 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Creating a strong and vibrant organization requires a willingness and diligence to measure the work product. Every person’s effort needs to relate to the goals and success of the organization. Measure, measure, measure.

Obvious, right? Every business book talks about accountability to the outcomes of the organization. Oddly enough, my consulting experience indicates that it is a common weakness in many organizations. There are often measures of aspects of the work (like the cost), but not always the kinds of measurements that answer the real questions about whether the team is doing the right thing in the right way.

One reason for a failure to measure is avoidance related to fears underlying measurement. Workers are often worried that measurement will show a failure at performing their job. You know, kind of like getting a grade at school. Unfortunately grading systems in school tend to be used to rank kids rather than help them improve areas of study. Measurement doesn’t have to be about ranking or failure. It can be the greatest feedback for improving one’s work.

Another common reason for failing to measure is the misperception that it is a pain in the hind quarters. It can be seen as getting in the way of production. Measuring does take some energy to devise the systems and then to maintain them. The payoff is enormous.

Profit-making companies do measurement best. In the end they know if they are making a profit or not. This “end” measure spurs them on to look at efficiencies and at customer satisfaction. Non-profits, governmental offices, and educational institutions all need metrics. How well are we serving the public? Are we using public dollars efficiently? Are our faculty members productive in terms of research and teaching? These are hard questions to answer, but they require creative effort to quantify and determine success at goals. And, just about anything can be measured.

Now, measurement in itself is not accountability. Measurement is the necessary condition for accountability. It need not turn into grading employees. It is an essential way to know that people are succeeding at what they are trying to accomplish, and, in turn, having those accomplishments produce a successful organization. Like other aspects of structure, it also matters how you implement your measurement systems.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

Worker Satisfaction and Employee Reward Systems

While I have been discussing communications in the workplace, I view communication as one of many aspects of structure. Communication is a vehicle for conveying support and structure to employees. The turn of a phrase or the wording of a memo can make huge difference in how employees perceive the attitude of their managers and leaders… and how the employees perform.

When it comes to reward systems the communication matters. You see, it is important that the rewards are seen as the success of great performance, not as a tool for enforcing performance. In work cultures where people work primarily for the reward (like in jobs that are fundamentally about the commission, for example) there is generally less loyalty to the company, less interest in the quality of the work product, and less personal satisfaction. People can switch from selling one product to another.

In companies that offer meaningful work and autonomy of work process people find intrinsic satisfaction from their effort. When people feel like they have some autonomy in accomplishing their work, they feel mastery for themselves, and increased loyalty to their company or organization. When that good commitment, effort and outcome occur, and it is celebrated with rewards, then workers feel even better about themselves and the job.

A year ago I wrote a post about the work of Daniel Pink, the author of Drive. He pointed out how, paradoxically, when cognitive tasks were rewarded, or incentivized, performance actually decreased. He noted that when people were given the time to think freely, without incentives or requirements, they were their most creative. For example, Australian software workers were give an afternoon to “do what they wanted” and see what ideas they had for their work. It turned out that the most useful and creative ideas in the company came out of that short creative period.

Humans need to feel autonomy and mastery. They also like to win and to succeed; to light up the score board. As managers and leaders we want to communicate to our employees that it is their job to figure out, creatively, how to move the ball down the field. We don’t incentivize exactly how they zig or zag. But we do jump up and down when they score. This is how we keep reward systems from detracting from autonomy and reducing performance.

So what you want to communicate in building a reward system is that the intention is not to control or micromanage your employees. Good performance is greatly appreciated, and the outcome (in terms of organizational goals) essential. Success brings the organization (and individuals) rewards. This delicate balance of “you can do it” and “the organization must achieve its goals” is the trick in presenting and implementing reward systems. In the People Side of Business, we call this the critical balance of support and structure.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

Structuring Your Communications in the Workplace

January 9, 2012 1 comment

While the guiding premise for communications in the workplace is that they are aimed at implementing the six people principles, communications processes should be structured throughout the organization. Okay, that’s a mouthful, what do I mean?

Almost everywhere I have consulted we have examined the communication process in terms of how often it occurs and how it is structured. Staff meetings typically take place on a regular basis, be it weekly or monthly. Regularity is critical because it establishes predictability for processing work and managing interpersonal process. The meetings also have a standard flow or agenda that helps everyone move through the business at hand. Of course, this includes not just the actual technical business, but also the support elements of taking care of people.

As essential as the transaction of business is the provision of support to staff. It is this component generally not seen as critical to the ongoing well-functioning of the team. Meetings are an opportunity for management and leadership to check in with the team, build a sense of family, and cull for personal issues floating around. For example, too often there are rumors or hearsay that creep into the group. These need clarification, correction, or denial. Oddly enough, all work groups seem to spontaneously generate “emotional stuff” (worries, concerns, or feared consequences).

There are whole books written on conducting a useful and successful meeting. In short I encourage meetings to be brisk and move through needed topics. Meetings should generally start with a brief support message (as explained in my previous post on communication sandwiches). Next would be what I call the “administrivia” portion of the meeting. These are the announcements, informational details, and reminders; they are like condiments on the meat. It is better to get them out of the way as soon as possible. In the meat section of the meeting is the hard technical business (“how do we meet our quarterly goals” or “how do we refine this process”). Finally, the meeting concludes with support.

That final support section can (and often should) be extended, especially if the work business is accomplished quickly. “How is the team getting along?” “Does anyone have a concern about our teaming they’d like to bring up?” “We have a new team member, maybe we could hear from Julie about how she got here?” “Are there topics for our next meeting?”

Communications works best when they feel natural and not formulaic or scripted. When they happen regularly staff gets a chance to participate in developing the organization and to process any personal issues related to that work. Communications are the essential tool for building a work team that functions comfortably and with personal satisfaction.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

A Satisfying Communication Sandwich

December 30, 2011 1 comment

The guiding premise for communications in the workplace is that they are aimed at implementing the six people principles. That is, the purpose is to provide support and structure for the employees. Communication must be intended to nurture, build a family-like environment, and offer opportunities for growth. It also should reinforce the structure needed to accomplish the work; not just defining policies and procedures, but clarifying outcomes.

The communication process might be thought of as a sandwich. The bread on both sides is supportive, with the center filling or meat being structure. Here’s how it looks. The communications between manager and employee should generally start with a greeting or a check in, or some sort of personal connection. At a minimum there is a “hello”, or a “how are things”, or a “nice to see you.” It might include an “I’d like to cover these topics, do you have something?” These comments make a personal connection that optimizes human receptivity for the discussion about the tasks of work.

The center of the sandwich is the meat of the conversation. “Let’s look at these technical processes together,” or “I need some changes to the report you gave me.” This part of the conversation is the business at hand. It is focused on what needs to happen for the organization to succeed.

Not to squeeze the metaphor too hard, but the bread is always personal, and the meat is generally impersonal. When going over the business at hand, you are never judgmental or derogatory about the person. It is all focused on the needs of the business. You are not critical of the person, but you may express the need for the work product to change.

The communication interaction or meeting closes with some form of personal connection. It can be as simple as “great” or “good luck” or “nice talking with you.” One of the best examples of this type of ending occurred weekly on Hill Street Blues, a show about the work of an inner city police precinct. At the end of every assignment meeting, before sending his men into duty, the Sergeant would invoke, “Hey, let’s be careful out there!” Now, there’s a meeting end that communicates the importance of its members.

Great leaders know how to put these sandwiches together. Buon appetito!

Tom DeMaio, PhD

Communication and Structure in the Workplace

December 23, 2011 1 comment

The six principles of the people side of business do not specifically include a section on communication. I have been asked where it fits. The six principles are the keys to managing and leading in the workplace. A critical component to implementing the principles is effective communication. It is a vehicle for conveying the support people need and it must be structured to be an ongoing benefit.

Our first four principles (acceptance, nurturance, family, and growth) require that management and leadership convey – on a regular basis – that employees matter, need to be cared for, and are offered opportunities for development. You convey support through your words and actions. For example, support is conveyed in every interaction between supervisor and employee. It happens when the employee is asked, “How are you today?” It happens when a supervisor takes an interest in the latest ideas an employee has for solving a problem. These are communications that must occur continually through the work process.

Communication is also needed for administrative functions, for implementing the fifth principle, structure. The employees need to know the policies and procedures, the goals, the rules and strategies of the organization. This keeps everyone in the loop and moving in the same direction.

When communication is not steady, humans have a tendency to get worried and uncomfortable. They wonder why they are being left out of the loop or if they are going to be rejected in some way. One might say that humans have a natural “paranoia” about things being wrong when there is not regular communication to refute the feeling.

Most of the places I have consulted pay too little attention to the need for and subtleties of regular communication. This is understandable since many of the communication processes (like staff meetings, e-mail blasts, or supervisory interactions) take valuable time, can be boring, or result in negative experiences.

Consequently, in my consulting, I always recommend a careful look at the communication process in the organization. The guiding premise is that the communications are aimed at implementing the six principles. Communication is not there because it is the right thing to do, but to have purpose. Implementation of the six principles requires that the communication process be structured in the sense that the meetings or interactions have clear function and regularity. More on this to come.

Thomas J. DeMaio, PhD

Structure in the Workplace: Focusing on Work Outcomes

December 9, 2011 2 comments

Employers intuitively and practically understand the need for structure in the workplace. Structure provides the roles, rules, and plans to achieve the outcomes desired by a business or organization. Too often, however, the structure becomes a control mechanism instead of a guide for individual and organizational success. When this occurs, structure becomes counterproductive and an impediment to creative problem-solving.

People need structure as a guidepost for their efforts in the workplace. They need a framework for operating in relation to one another and toward organizational goals. The key to operating a useful, healthy structure is in not letting the structure take over and ruling what people do. Structure works best when it focuses more on defining work outcomes instead of work behaviors. Workers want to understand how their work product contributes to organizational success, not every detail of how they are supposed to make that contribution. This focus on the outcome is how structure can exist while still allowing employees an opportunity for autonomy and mastery in their work. The focus on outcomes can help workers maintain the creativity and flexibility needed to master their jobs, find efficiencies, and be part of the team.

I saw structure become a problem when I was consulting to a group home system. The system had built an elaborate set of procedures and rules for the staff and the troubled kids. If the kids broke enough of the rules, there were clear sanctions and they were eventually removed from the home. While the system was there to work with “troubled kids,” over time the rules took over and the kids failed at an alarming rate. The director was clear: “We have a set of rules that need to be followed.” Unfortunately those rules became more important than the creative challenge of helping kids adjust, heal, and become productive members of the community.

Don’t get me wrong. The rules were needed. But they got in the way of real success. The enforcement of the rules became the project.

In the work environment, people can use the structure to help them produce products or provide organizational service in an efficient manner. But when the rules become more important than the actual product, then it is time to revisit the rules.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

Safety and Security in the Workplace through Structure

November 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Safety and security in the workplace is usually discussed in terms of the emotional support and protection provided to employees. But there is another component to safety and security often overlooked. People feel safer and more secure when there are clear rules and expectations for performance; that is, when there is a healthy structure.

Healthy structure is about clear rules, roles, rewards, and consequences. Work is a place where employees go to perform a job. They need to know what needs to be accomplished, and how their work integrates with the overall production of the organization. Without structure – think the boring stuff like policies and procedures – people will be hesitant, unsure, and worried about judgment of their work. Rules provide a framework for guiding a person’s sense of how to operate in the environment.

Without a definition of needed organizational outcomes, people have no way to feel successful, accomplished, or motivated for hard work. Goals provide the essential measure for workers to compare their performance and to know that they have done a good job.

One trick to having organizational structure succeed is to have employees participate in building, or modifying, their own structure. It keeps them from feeling controlled and managed in a very negative way. Participation also helps make the structure relevant and efficient for achieving employee outcomes. And, when workers participate, they are more likely to follow and enforce the structure in their small work group. It cuts down on refusals and rebellion, keeping people within safe and productive parameters.

Safety and security is achieved through communal buy-in of the structure. When workers agree that the fundamental structures, like pay policies and organizational procedures, are fair and reasonable, they will maintain a safe and secure work culture. The few people who behave counterproductively will be contained and corrected by the vast majority who respect the structure.

When I was consulting to a facility for troubled kids, a counselor was asked how he was so successful in getting the kids to listen to and obey him. Mickey replied, “You govern by the consent of the governed.” After we finished laughing, we agreed it was too true. Don’t forget, it is the same in your organization, and it makes for a safe and secure environment.

Tom DeMaio, PhD