Wednesday, 10 June 2015

If people want to do a good job, why don't they?

You often see it written or hear it said that people don't want to do a bad job at work. They may not love their job ("it's a means to an end") and they may not be workaholics ("I work the hours I'm paid"), but nevertheless while they are at work they don't want to do a bad job because it's demoralising and not good for self-esteem.

Well, that's the argument anyway. But in my 35+ years of working life I've seen many examples of people doing a bad job, and have worked in organisations that struggle to improve. Why?

What is a "bad job"?

A fundamental must be a definition of constitutes doing a bad job. Many organisations will have some form of appraisal whereby an employee has targets set and gets some feedback on how they have done. So it shouldn't be that difficult to identify when someone hasn't met the targets. But it's not as easy as it sounds. If I set a project manager the target of successfully managing a project, how does one measure that? Projects are subject to delays outside the control of the PM, so timescale is an unfair criterion; for similar reasons so is cost, and indeed even quality! If you're reading this you're probably thinking that it was a silly or ill-defined target (I hope so, anyway) - but it's illustrative of my first two points:
1. We often set unreasonable targets.
2. We often don't define the behaviours and outcomes we expect well enough.
So, if employees aren't very clear what constitutes a "job well done", or if they are submitted to unrealistic expectations, is it any wonder that they (sometimes) fail?

It's all about personality type, isn't it?

Let's assume that we can and have defined what a "good job" really looks like, and that it's within the grasp of employees to do it. Would we then see 100% success? I don't think so. I have seen people who appear to go out of their way to do the least possible work and not seem to care about the quality of their output, no matter how well their objectives are defined (more about this below).

We're into trickier territory here because we cannot possibly know exactly why anyone does anything, except possibly for ourselves - and even then we may not always understand our own motives! Social psychologists have long tried to come up with some general rules or predictors about human behaviour, ranging from Maslow's hierarchy of needs, through Myers' and Briggs' personality types, to emotional intelligence as posited by Goleman and others. These are just three of a very long list of overlapping theories on what we're like and why we're like that. If it was easy to define we'd have one universally accepted schema - that fact that we have literally scores of them illustrates how difficult it is and what complex animals we are! Does anyone recall the TV series "The Prisoner" (the original with Patrick McGoohan, not the recent remake)? His mantra was "I am not a number" and his struggle, throughout the series, was to regain and prove his independence and individuality.

My third point, then, is:
3. We should not try to pigeon hole people - each person is a unique individual.

So, how do we understand motivation?

I am not against the psychologists' schemes (though I like some, e.g. Maslow, better than others e.g. Myers-Briggs) - but we have to use them with caution, and no single scheme tells the whole story. But the best way to understand someone is to get to know them and to ask them what matters to them. Part of the problem with management and big organisations is that inter-personal relationships turn into impersonal relationships! Here's an example. My sickness/absence record is good - the last time I was off sick was over 5 years ago. About 3 years ago I received a letter from the Director of HR thanking me for my good attendance record. This was my organisation's (and I assume her) idea of how to thank and reward people. It just made me cross because it felt like lip-service to me. Far better would have been a personal phone call, or better still, a visit from her. I'm sure her excuse would have been that there are a lot of staff with good attendance records and she hasn't the time to see them all. Really?
4. Treat people as individuals, with respect and a personal touch.

No hopers

Suppose we did all of the above: would that make an end to people doing "bad jobs"? No, of course not. In some cases people do "bad jobs" because of mistakes (these should be forgiven) or because they are not sufficiently skilled or trained (this should be remedied). But unfortunately there are some people who, for reasons I can't fathom, just don't want to do a good job. Who are "time servers" and will look for any excuse to work the system and get away with doing as little as they can. You can try your best to work with them, but nothing seems to work.

We need to be better at identifying and dealing with such people because if we do not it sends a negative message to the rest of us, and reinforces for them that they can get away with it.
5. We need to be tough and decisive with the minority who are genuinely disruptive and destructive.
Ironically, we don't do enough to recognise and uplift the people who do care, and we undermine them by not taking decisive enough action against those who don't.

Also published as a LinkedIn "Pulse" article

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