The Employees You’re Slamming Are Behaving Rationally

It is difficult to find something written about change that doesn’t talk about how hard it is. My observation couldn’t be more different. I find that change happens in an instant — deciding what to change and finding the right levers for changing it, those are the complicated parts.

I’ll use culture as an example. I was recently working with some executives who were lamenting that their employees weren’t acting with a sense of urgency. And no matter how many times the senior management team implored employees to move faster, the needle on urgency didn’t move. The team concluded that employees just didn’t believe them that urgency really mattered.

They didn’t, for perfectly good reasons. When I asked the team to explain their employees’ behavior, they attributed all kinds of fundamental character flaws to these individuals they had carefully selected and trained — lazy, uncommitted, distracted, risk averse. I let them get all of that out of their system. And then I asked why a smart, well-intentioned employee would act without urgency in their organization.

It took a few tries to break the habit of judging and psychoanalyzing their employees, but eventually we got somewhere. It turns out that when employees made mistakes in this particular company, they were often pounced on by the most influential of the senior team. In some cases, it bordered on ridicule, a public hearing on someone’s judgment and intellect. Once we uncovered this pattern, we were 95% of the way towards change.

These employees were behaving rationally according to the dominant, if informal performance management system. Senior management could not have been clearer – only present polished work that you’re damn sure is right.  It was no surprise that few people revealed any intermediate progress. It made perfect sense to wait until every i was dotted, every t crossed, before making any sudden movements. That behavior looked like the absence of urgency. And senior managers’ actions were at the root of it.

The solution? It wasn’t to keep clarifying the importance of urgency. This team had to stop punishing small mistakes, particularly mistakes that were a consequence of working faster. And they had to start celebrating speed, with public acknowledgment that moving faster requires new behaviors like sharing unpolished ideas and building on each other’s work.

The lesson? Before setting out to change something, figure out why people might be behaving rationally in the culture and systems you’ve designed (or permitted). The least likely, least useful explanation is that good people have suddenly gone bad. The most likely explanation is that you’ve created an environment that is setting them up to fail. Now change your behaviors that are contributing to that environment. I promise it won’t take long.

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