Encouraging adulthood

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An anonymous reader, commenting on last week’s anecdote about Employee Satisfaction Surveys, described how his company achieved high marks year after year.

Employees receive a company-wide performance bonus of between 10 and 15 percent, based on the entire company and individual workgroups meeting preset goals. Still, for quite some time, employees rated their satisfaction poorly.

In response, the company’s executives made better Employee Satisfaction Survey results one of the preset goals. Since then … no surprise … every survey has reported that the company is the best place in the world to work.

I’m pretty sure the folks running this company had no intention of rigging the survey results. It’s more likely they made a series of decisions, each of which made sense by itself, and never stepped back to look at the whole thing.

Company-wide performance bonuses? Great idea. Wanting employees to like and appreciate their working environment? Likewise, and a much better idea than wanting them to hate it. Make their liking it a formal management goal? Absolutely — it won’t happen any other way. Measure their appreciation so you know? Of course, since the only alternative is guessing.

We all know what the road to Hell is made of. If each paving stone is labeled with the good intention that placed it there, there’s an even faster-growing stretch than failing to step back and look at the whole picture like the folks who set up this failed system. It’s deciding “We have to hold employees accountable,” as several readers insisted in response to last week’s column that suggested it’s a poor way to lead.

Opinion: It’s the opposite of leadership. As those who have read Leading IT: The Toughest Job in the World know, a key measure of a leader’s effectiveness is followership — others leading on your behalf. If you have to put ’em in chains and drag them behind you, calling it leadership is something of a stretch.

Holding employees accountable amounts to little more than that. What the phrase usually turns into in practical terms is that you punish them for failure. When you do, you deprive them of their adulthood.

As I explained to one of my daughters once upon a time, the universe imposes consequences for bad choices. It does so automatically, through the operation of various physical, social, and legislated laws. When adults make poor choices, such as smoking several packs of cigarettes a day, they experience the consequences because that’s what happens.

That’s why parents create artificial consequences. By doing so we hope our children will acquire the habit of making good decisions, thereby avoiding the universe’s much harsher consequences. This works when they’re young. But by the time they become teenagers, our ability to teach through the imposition of artificial consequences becomes more and more limited. Real ones take over.

Some managers consider their trade to be similar to parenting, and they apply similar techniques. But management isn’t the same as parenting (also see “Sam Kinison on management,” 4/15/1996), for this simple reason: When you encourage a six-year-old child to display the maturity of an eleven-year-old, you’re moving her forward. But when you do the same with a forty-six-year-old programmer, you have the opposite effect.

To be clear: As I’m using the words, holding an employee accountable means they do what they’re supposed to do because you impose discipline. If they take responsibility, it means they exhibit self-discipline. You can’t teach self-discipline to adults through the imposition of consequences. Mostly, trying to do so achieves the exact opposite — you rewind their lives to adolescence, and in doing so encourage the instinctive rebellion of the adolescent.

Create a culture of adulthood instead. Do it by promoting the people who display the trait. By giving them the bigger bonuses. By praising their successes in staff meetings, and profiling them in the company newsletter.

Establish, in short, the expectation that this is how we do things around here — we take assignments, make them our own, get them done. One of the most fascinating aspects of culture is that people adapt to it and display its characteristics themselves almost instinctively, without thinking consciously about how their behavior and reactions are changing. Take advantage of this very natural tendency.

Sometimes, you do have to “decruit” (now there’s a word!) those who persistently fail to take responsibility. Start with those managers who blame their failure to deliver results on their employees (who, they complain, fail to take responsibility). This might look like you’re holding them accountable. But that isn’t the case. What you’re doing is recognizing a basic principle of culture change:

You either change the people, or you change the people.

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