From HR.com’s Leadership Excellence April 2021 edition. Read more: https://www.hr.com/en/magazines/leadership_excellence_essentials/april_2021_leadership/leading-through-traumatic-changes_kn38vvcs.html
One of the most interesting things about Arthur Shelley, the author of KNOWledge SUCCESSion, is the mixture of academic and pragmatic practice. Having a foot in both worlds creates a rigor in research that isn’t found in business books and a sense of what’s actually happening in the world that is all too often lost in academic writing.
Knowledge is Power
Shelley’s and my worlds – despite being on opposite sides of the planet – intersect in multiple ways. We share the same friends and the same interests in knowledge management and are thus involved in many of the same communities. At the heart of these intersections is the passion for finding ways for organizations to get more value out of the knowledge they have. By encouraging better knowledge capture and transfer, we both hope to improve corporate outcomes and the trajectory of humanity.
Despite the focus on knowledge, Shelley is clear that knowledge is only as useful as our ability to use it effectively. That is, when it’s shared and applied. It means nothing to know something that you can’t use when you need it.
One of Shelley’s criticisms of learning today – and one I share – is that we’re teaching people to memorize facts so they can answer standardized questions instead of teaching people to think for themselves and form their own opinions. We have maintained the historical learning model where the teacher is the fount of information, and they pour it into the heads of the students. The problem with this method is that it doesn’t work.
Malcolm Knowles et al. in The Adult Learner made it clear that adults learn differently from children, and using a pedagogical approach on adults doesn’t work. You must provide them context and relevance to what they learn. Going further than Knowles’ work, we realize that, today, we expect we can type a question into Google and instantly be presented with an answer.
The problem is that we often accept the first response in Google as THE response. That is, we fail to see that, for every situation, there are multiple opinions. Shelley likes to say that for every PhD, there’s an equal and opposite PhD. While this may be going too far in the direction of the uncertainty of truth, it is not an inaccurate statement. Many highly educated people vehemently disagree with one another in their field of study. What looks like certainty is Fractal Along the Edges.
Shelley advocates for an experiential learning approach. Klein’s work in Sources of Power indicates the real value and expertise can come from experience. Recognition-primed decisions (RPD) in particular are powerful ways that fire commanders convert their experience into life-saving guidance for the firemen under their command. However, Klein also admitted that recreating the conditions that would allow for this same experience to be produced more quickly proved to be difficult. Therefore, experiential approaches can be time-consuming.
The oldest blog post in my drafts folder is about learning organizations. It’s a collection of ideas that never quite fit together. Despite the subtitle of The Fifth Discipline, it never really explained how to create a learning organization. The reason for the struggles may be that organizations don’t learn, people do. While the idea that you structure your organization to create learning at every level is an ideal state, it’s not clear that anyone ever really gets there.
Instead of learning organizations, we seem to fall into defensive routines (see Dialogue), and we fail to fully explore others’ points of view for fear that they may be right and our perspective may be wrong. (See also Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).)
Two underlying themes in books on creativity and innovation (see Creative Confidence and The Innovator’s DNA) are that creativity and innovation exists inside of all of us and that our creativity is unleashed with a variety of experiences. In most cases, we don’t create new knowledge or innovations as much as we extend and adapt the knowledge from other areas and find new ways of applying it to solve new problems.
Knowledge has value directly for the problems that it’s designed to solve, and it can also be leveraged in new ways to create more value.
Perhaps you’ll find the knowledge you need to be successful in KNOWledge SUCCESSion.
There’s a great struggle between those who want to manage the project of change and those who want to make sure that everyone feels okay with the change. It’s a struggle that’s often obscured by the structure of the organization and the change process. If the project management office leads the change, then the “hard” side of change is often emphasized with tasks, dates, and budgets. If the change management or human resources department leads the change, then it often is focused on employee engagement and feelings, with the project details being an afterthought. Kathryn Zukof’s The Hard and Soft Sides of Change Management: Tools for Managing Process and People shows you how to balance and integrate these two essential aspects of the change management process.
The most common cause of change management failure is the failure to recognize the loss that people feel. We still assume that “business is business” and we shouldn’t be emotional or experience loss. This is the illusion: that we make rational decisions and business is about those rational decisions. The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch share Jonathan Haidt’s model of the rational rider sitting on an emotional elephant and the realization that the elephant is really in control. As Dan Ariely points out in Predictably Irrational, we don’t make rational decisions.
We grieve loss. The Grief Recovery Handbook explains that grief is the natural emotion that follows loss – any kind of loss. William Bridges in Managing Transitions explains that every change will trigger some degree of loss, even if it is a nostalgic loss for the way that things used to be.
Leaders look at the net positive outcome and fail to recognize that in the benefits there are also losses. As I’m looking at giving away our eldest daughter to marriage at some point, I’m poignantly aware that, as much as her getting married is a good thing (we like our future son-in-law), there is a loss. Our daughter will no longer be “our little one” in the same way that she was.
Kurt Lewin first started working with the concept of force fields. (Which I discuss in my blog post, The Behavior Function.) The idea is that every behavior has forces that drive it and those that inhibit it. What I’ve learned from working with those in recovery is that “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” That is because anything you fail to acknowledge gets larger. (See Neurodharma for more on this topic.) When leaders fail to recognize the loss that exists in change, they make that force larger – sometimes larger than the forces compelling the change forward.
Converting the Detractors
In the Christian faith, the most prolific author of the Bible is Paul. However, that wasn’t his given name. His given name was Saul, and he had a conversion experience on his way to Damascus. A persecutor of Christians was converted into a powerful advocate. While we may not have the supernatural power to blind someone to encourage their conversion, there are things we can do to encourage that even our most ardent detractors become our greatest champions. If you prefer an Eastern approach, Sun Tzu in The Art of War said, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
Zukof recommends a “red team,” or a team that’s designed specifically to look for flaws in a change management plan. It’s a time-honored approach to ensuring that we don’t get too sold on our own ideas. The origins might be found in the idea of a “devil’s advocate” instituted in the Roman Catholic Church to identify flaws in those who were being considered for sainthood.
Red teams are great way to catalog, identify, and mitigate the risks associated with a change. Having detractors on the team validates that they’re heard and that their concerns are being addressed. This, in turn, typically makes them appreciate the change more positively.
I don’t believe in change resistance as such. I think that there are those who are experiencing losses, which we may perceive as resistant. The losses may be objectively real or just the psychological losses like the loss of nostalgia. In acknowledging and recognizing those losses – and attempting to compensate where appropriate – we minimize their effects and reduce the perceived resistance.
The loss may even be just a perceived loss due to a lack of understanding about the change, where communication and dialogue can resolve things such that the individual doesn’t perceive that they will lose as much or their probability of great loss is smaller. The next effect of which is the evaporation of the perceived resistance.
There’s an alternative form of resistance that I’d categorize as conflict. In this case, the person understands but disagrees with the change. They either see things differently (they have a different perspective), or they value things differently. (If you’re looking for tips on resolving conflict, you can sign up for a short email series here.) This form of resistance may result in a form of subversion.
Chris Argyris in Organizational Traps describes a prototypical problem where users would agree in public and quietly go to sympathetic ears to complain. They’d use active and passive forms of subversion to prevent the thing that the members of the meeting publicly agreed or acquiesced to. In its passive form, the members of the meeting would simply fail to do work in the direction of the agreement. It doesn’t feel like rebellion if you simply take no action. The active form, where the person actively works against the public decision or agreement is much less common but is still a real concern for organizations.
Amy Edmondson provided one solution to the problem in The Fearless Organization: helping everyone have the psychological safety necessary to speak up in the meetings about their disagreements instead of quietly taking them on and using them as a reason to block the effort. Immunity to Change recommends the back-end evaluation where you monitor for behaviors that don’t match the stated commitments and ask the question why.
Subversion in any form erodes trust, which is essential for the change, the organization, and society, as Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order explains.
In A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson’s character Col. Nathan Jessup exclaims, “You can’t handle the truth.” We seem to think that people can handle the truth much less frequently than they actually can. Kim Scott in Radical Candor addresses the typical objection that the truth can hurt by answering that it’s clear not cruel. We should not confuse secondary benefits with the reason why we’re doing something. When we’re not honest in our communications with employees, they know it, and as a result, they’ll lose faith in our willingness to communicate clearly.
Trust is created in three forms: contractual, communication, and competence. By failing to communicate the real reasons that we’re doing something, we’re violating communication trust, and it will make people appropriately wonder whether they can believe us or not. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited for more on this critical topic.)
Rewarding Problem Resolution
I learned that it’s not whether a problem happened or not that determined whether something was good or bad. What really matters more than anything is how people responded when a problem did happen. How did they handle it? Did they take responsibility for it all, like Johnson & Johnson did with the Tylenol tampering issues of 1982? Or did they choose a different path, along the lines of those explained in Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)? The difference is critical. It may seem counter intuitive to reward people who made a mistake in your organization or your change; however, if they responded extemporarily, a reward may be appropriate.
The truth is that we’ll all face challenges – some of them we’ll create ourselves. It’s not the mistakes that define us but how we address them. It won’t be a mistake to read The Hard and Soft Sides of Change Management to see how you can handle the challenges that you face in your change better.
That there are different kinds of intelligence is not a new thought. Barbara Trautlein wants you to know about change intelligence and why it’s important.
Before we can get to the idea that some folks may be predisposed to a certain kind of intelligence, we’ve got to go back to Howard Gardner, who first proposed the idea. In short, the idea is that we can be very intelligent in one way but not another. This led to a branch of thinking about whether emotional intelligence might be one of them. Daniel Goleman wrote a book titled Emotional Intelligence, which was very popular and brought the idea to people’s attention. Others have picked up on Goleman’s work, including Travis Bradbury and Jean Graves, who wrote Emotional Intelligence 2.0.
Others have found ways to explore other kinds of intelligence, including Conversational Intelligence. There are others who use intelligence in their title – like Collaborative Intelligence – but don’t mean it in quite the same way.
One of the conventions that happened is intelligence quotient began being abbreviated as IQ, and therefore emotional intelligence became EQ and Trautlein’s change intelligence became CQ. While IQ has a scale and a measurement with it, neither EQ nor CQ have a scale. (Interestingly, our collective average IQ keeps going up according to the Flynn Effect, as explained in Range.)
EQ has either five or four key components depending on which variation of the work you are focused on. These components, however, do not have specific set of objective metrics. They’re guidelines for ways to improve. While some have developed assessments around EQ, there isn’t one standard way to measure it.
Trautlein’s CQ is different still, having three areas of focus or interest: head, hand, heart. In her assessment, you’re given forced-choice questions that ultimately lead you to choosing one for the various scenarios that you’re presented. The relationship between these three places you into one of seven categories, including the “pure” single-attribute versions, the “mixed” two-attribute versions, and the single three-attribute version. The graphic that she uses is:
Because of the forced-ranking nature of the test, there’s no improvement in capabilities in each of these areas, just a pull in one direction or another.
There’s a great deal of interest in psychological typing systems, as explained in The Cult of Personality Testing. I’ve reviewed several books about different personality profiling systems, including Personality Types, The Normal Personality, Fascinate, and Strengths Finder. I cautiously advocate the use of these personality profiles because of the “Barnum effect.” The short version is that people tend to identify with profiles and horoscopes more than they should given their non-specific nature. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more.)
Despite the tendency to apply more weight than is deserved, they can serve as a useful window to discover more about yourself. That’s why we suggest that people consider doing a few of them and seeing how it exposes aspects of their personality that they may not have been aware of in our Extinguish Burnout materials.
Beyond Trautlein’s assessment model, there is a keen awareness of some of the dynamics that affect corporate life. She describes the three layers of change – executives, management, and workers – in a way that is strikingly similar to the way they’re described in Seeing Systems. Each part of the organization sees itself as acting rationally and can’t understand why those around them are acting so oddly.
Executives wonder why the managers and workers aren’t implementing their beautiful strategies. Workers are wondering how the executives could have conceived of such an ill-informed strategy that doesn’t match the way things really work. The managers are stuck in the middle trying to figure out how to get more compliance with the strategies without alienating the workers and how to tell the executives that their strategies aren’t grounded in reality.
General Patton’s rule, “A good plan executed today is better than a perfect plan executed at some indefinite point in the future,” is a good way to express the need to be done. It’s the mantra of satisficers everywhere who recognize that there isn’t time for perfect. (See The Paradox of Choice for more.) Too often, we believe that we can plan sufficiently to identify every condition and handle every case. However, as Colonel Tom Kolditz, the head of the behavioral sciences division at West Point, says, “The trite expression we always use is ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.'” (See Made to Stick for more.)
In other words, do enough planning to generate value and then try to use it so you can learn what works – and what doesn’t.
There is one emotion that derails change most, and it is fear. We’re afraid of the present, we’re afraid of the transition. We’re afraid of failing and afraid of succeeding. People are afraid of what the future holds and of remaining the same.
Too often, change leaders fail to recognize the power of fear. More importantly, they fail to recognize how easy it is for people to become fearful. Fear is more prevalent and powerful than any of us would like to believe. However, you shouldn’t be afraid to read Change Intelligence.
It’s hard to figure out what you need to know for change management. It’s such a big profession with so many overlapping definitions that it’s hard to sort out what might be the essentials. That’s what makes Change Management: The Essentials such a difficult thing to pull off. Lena Ross doesn’t score a perfect 10 for this work – but it’s a good way to get oriented quickly if you’d like.
Will and Skill
Change management requires both will and skill. You can’t easily teach will. Will is the grit and tenacity that it takes to succeed in difficult situations. (See Grit for more on what grit is.) However, as Willpower explains, willpower can be developed over time. By testing and retesting our will – and persevering through challenges – we grow stronger. (See Antifragile for more.) C.R. Snyder in The Psychology of Hope explains that hope has two components: willpower and waypower. Waypower is the ability to get things done.
In other words, waypower is having the skills you need to accomplish your goals. It’s “know-how.” What Change Management: The Essentials is trying to do is to start you on the path of learning the skills so that you can see how you can be successful with your change project.
Anyone who is going to become good at change must accept that they’re going to make some mistakes. They’ll have a few missteps. Ross has a few in her book as well. The first is that she incorrectly states that there’s no evidence that Lewin conceived of change as three steps. The truth is that it’s mentioned in “Frontiers in Group Dynamics: Concept, Method and Reality in Social Science; Social Equilibria and Social Change,” which is in the inaugural volume of Human Relations.
The other misstep is subtle. Ross says that the change practitioner isn’t responsible for delivering the business benefits of the change. At some level, this is correct. The business leader is responsible for the business. However, at another level, it’s not correct, because it places the change practitioner outside the responsibility for success. Instead of being in the boat rowing with the business, they’re on the shore shouting at them to do better. The best change practitioners accept co-responsibility with the business in delivering the results.
A slightly better phrasing might have been that the change practitioner won’t be held accountable for the results. That’s true. The business leader has ultimate accountability for the performance of their group. (If you’re struggling with the difference between accountability and responsibility, see Understanding RACI Conditions.)
Finally, Ross explains that Asch’s conformity experiments are about elevators – the truth is that Asch’s experiments were about line length. The elevator experiments were a Candid Camera stunt and didn’t have the kind of scientific rigor that Asch’s original experiments had. (For more about his experiments and more, see The Necessity of Neuroscience.)
Ross also relates a set of 5 “myths” – the first three of which are not and the remaining two are only partially untrue:
- 70% of Change of Change Efforts Fail – See Why the 70% Failure Rate of Change Projects is Probably Right.
- People Naturally Resist Change – See William Bridges’ book, Managing Transitions, for more about why people do have a natural predisposition to resist change – and why it’s limited.
- Change Managers are Change Leaders – Here, I’d argue that good change managers are change leaders. There’s a lot of confusion in the difference between managers and leaders. Leadership in the Twenty-First Century is a good place to start to detangle the two terms.
- Change Management is Dead – This is bandied about for every profession. Change management is transforming and the old way of thinking about it may be dead. It’s becoming an essential skill for every manager and leader rather than a separate skill set and role.
- Change Management is Just Communications and Training – It is communications and training – and a whole lot more. However, these are two key skills that are often lacking in the people being asked to execute change.
Ross explains that she learned that imperfect artifacts are okay. Over time, I’ve learned to value imperfect solutions of all types, from the artifact that isn’t perfect but is good enough to the solution that still requires human intervention at times. The Paradox of Choice explains that maximizers – those that must get to perfect – are less happy and less effective than those who do just enough. Those who do just enough are called satisficers.
The tricky distinction here is discovering what’s enough. What’s a good enough artifact to be effective? The answer varies, but the good news is that you can openly discuss what level of perfection will be required for artifacts – at least, if there’s enough psychological safety. (For more on psychological safety, see The Fearless Organization.)
Principles Not Formulas
Ross also quotes Richard Feynman and says to “teach principles, not formulas.” This is quite right in that you want to raise the bar for what you’re doing. As Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues explained, there’s a hierarchy of educational objectives, and recall is at the bottom. Higher up is the ability to apply knowledge and even further still is the synthesis of new knowledge. (See Efficiency in Learning for more about learning concepts.)
The counterbalance to this is that we “grasp the concrete by means of the abstract.” (See Pervasive Information Architecture for the reference.) In other words, we learn from examples and stories and then we are taught how to see the generic principles that exist in these examples. Wired for Story explains how we’ve evolved with stories and how we need them to anchor our thinking.
In the end, if we want a practical start to change management, then Change Management: The Essentials is a good read.
Change needs leadership. To be a leader, you must be willing to change – both yourself and the organization you lead. It’s in this intersection that Leading Change: Overcoming the Ideology of Comfort and Tyranny of Custom shines. It’s a no-holds-barred understanding not just of change and why change efforts fail but also of leadership and how one expresses it in a world where command and control is no longer the rule. Other works like Leadership on the Line include subtitles like “Staying alive through the dangers of change” but fail to weigh in on the broader issues of leadership, at least in a substantive way.
Most of the time the disciplines of change and the study of leadership don’t cross. One can look through classic works like McGregor Burns’ Leadership and Rost’s Leadership for the Twenty-First Century for an understanding of what leadership should be. Robert Greenleaf describes a form of Servant Leadership, and Chris Lowney describes the Jesuit approach in Heroic Leadership. Daniel Goleman provides his context of the emotionally intelligent leader in Primal Leadership. John Maxwell has his 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. And those are just some of the books where the word “leadership” is in the title. Bookstores are filled with scores of books that seek to distill the essence of leadership for readers.
Leading Change offers several definitions of leadership, including President Eisenhower’s “the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Later, they nudge this definition to include an awareness of what the followership wants. In fact, they share Drucker’s one characteristic common to all leaders: followers. (Rost would be proud.) And so, the idea of what people think leadership is – and isn’t – is woven through the text like the threads that make up a tapestry.
Leading Change offers no new model for how to get change done. It leans on the development of leaders to get the change done in their organizations. However, it does offer 31 core reasons why people resist change:
- Stare decisis
- Lack of ripeness
- Lack of self-confidence
- Future shock
- Lack of knowledge
- Human nature
- Individual genius versus group mediocrity
- Short-term thinking
- Snow blindness
- Collective fantasy
- Chauvinistic conditioning
- Fallacy of the exception
- Natura non facit saltum (Nature Does Not Proceed Through Leaps)
- The rectitude of the powerful
- Change has no constituency
- The despotism of custom
- Human mindlessness
As a catalog of potential resistance, it has more depth than Kotter’s Buy-In. It’s a wonderful listing to review whenever you perceive that you’re encountering resistance in your change project.
The Paradox of Leadership
The paradox of leadership is that everyone wants a leader, but no one wants to be led. It’s a great thing to be able to defer responsibility to another party without losing the ability to control oneself. As Compelled to Control points out, everyone wants to control, but no one wants to be controlled.
The best leaders are therefore adept at listening to their followers and constituents to hear the underlying problems and find the underlying solutions. Upon finding these solutions they must make everyone feel as if it’s their idea. Leading Change speaks of the resistance to Peter Drucker’s work at GM as having been Drucker’s work – and not theirs. It also speaks of a judge who proposed alternative sentencing on the grounds that “he thinks that he’s smarter than everybody else.” Leaders who can’t convince others that the plan is their plan has little chance of being successful.
Change Isn’t Natural
When anthropologists studied various cultures, they never saw change as a normal part of the society. Societies – like organizations, it seems – are naturally resistant to change. They’re designed to maintain the status quo for as long as possible. So, when we’re leading a change, we must realize that the system – but not necessarily the people individually – will resist that change.
Because change is not natural, we need leaders to help us navigate through it. Perhaps the best thing you can do to get started is to take a read of Leading Change.
Call in the SWOT team. Analyze the weakness and put up a solid strategic defense to the onslaught of environmental threats. That’s the kind of language that too often permeates change projects. Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change seeks to change the fundamental orientation from one of wars and weaknesses to one of opportunities, strengths, and views of the world, which are definitively more positive and safer.
To understand the fundamental shift in thinking, it’s appropriate to point to the shift in psychology that happened with Martin Seligman at the helm of the American Psychological Association (APA). While the industry still focuses on mental diseases, Seligman and those near him looked for a more positive path. His initial work on learned helplessness would eventually become transformed into a failure to learn hope, as he explains in The Hope Circuit. Instead of rescuing people from the depths of their disease, Seligman encouraged people to Flourish.
Seligman and Chris Peterson would develop a way to assess your strengths – Values in Action (VIA) is what they called it. It was built on Seligman’s previous work in Authentic Happiness and extended it into identifying a set of strengths.
Others would follow the lead, including Barbara Fredrickson, whose research as described in Positivity established that the positive to negative ratio of greater than 3:1 in your feelings lead to an upwards spiral for you – and for those around you. (See The Halo Effect for the limits of your ability to influence those around you.)
These are all positive perspectives on individual psychology. However, Appreciative Inquiry also includes what Cooperrider and White believe are the positive core of organizations. They are:
- Strategic opportunities
- Product strengths
- Technical assets
- Breakthrough innovations
- Elevated thoughts
- Best business practices
- Positive emotions
- Organization wisdom
- Core competencies
- Visions of possibility
- Leadership capabilities
- Product pipeline
- Vital traditions
- Lived values
- Positive macrotrends
- Social capital
- Collective spirit
- Embedded knowledge
- Financial assets
- Visions of positive futures
- Alliances and partnerships
- Value chain strengths
- Strategic advantages
- Relational resources
- Customer loyalty
Two Essential Factors
Cooperrider and White also believe that you must have two things for success. The first is management commitment, and the second is involvement of the entire workforce. While these are at some level true, they’re also somewhat idealized. Everyone says that you must get executive buy-in. Some say that you need to get everyone in the organization on board with the change.
The problem I have with the statement is not its validity but rather the lack of clarity on how to achieve these goals.
At the Heart
Appreciative Inquiry is a way to confront the generally negative view that change often takes of the current state with an appreciation for how the organization reached its current state and the people that are a part of it. While Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change may not change the way you look at change, it may help you appreciate it more.
It started two years before The Great Depression, and the impact on what we know about management can’t be understated. Management and the Worker seems to share the insights that were discovered at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works based in Chicago, and it’s strangely richer than most of us may have been led to believe.
A Different Time
For those reading the book today, they’ll be struck by many things that would not be politically acceptable today. The workers – operators – in the relay assembly test room are repeatedly called “girls,” not women, workers, or operators. Such was the expectation then. There were jobs that women did and different jobs that men did, and it was reasonable to refer to them by gender.
In was also a time when graduating high school wasn’t common. Many of the operators didn’t finish high school, much less attend college. There were several cases documented in the book where the operators would turn over their wages to the family to help support the family unit and more than a few cases where the operator left school to get a job to help support the family.
Even back then, there was the conversation about the increasing demand for higher education, both completing high school and going to college. The concern was raised that it would become a requirement for someone to complete college to get a job, and that would eliminate the ability of poor folks to get jobs.
More interesting was the concept that single women could have jobs but that married women were taking jobs from men who needed a job to support their family. While this was at times overt, there were many cases where a societal pressure to discriminate against working married women was apparent. There were even negative comments shaped around the need for married couples to eat at a restaurant because the woman was too tired to cook.
The standard work week back then was 48 hours. This included a half day on Saturday. There was no expectation of a 40-hour week and the transition to a 40-hour week – and the resulting reduction in wages – was an unfortunate result of the Depression and the reduction of demand.
I address these here, because I want to both draw attention to the discrepancies and to explicitly share that the challenges we face with motivation of employees and the broader context of the employment relationship isn’t a sign of today’s times. It’s always been with us – we’ve just not seen it.
The Observer Effect
This book is largely focused after the famous illumination experiments that drove Hawthorne Works to be largely synonymous with the observer effect. The observer effect says that people will behave differently when they know they’re being watched. This truism has been extended and adapted over time, including “You get what you measure,” variations of which have been assigned to both Edward Deming and Peter Drucker.
The famous experiments that made the Hawthorne Works famous were variations in lighting that were done to measure the impact of lighting on performance. When lighting was increased, productivity increased. When lighting was decreased, productivity was again increased. This caused the experimenters to realize that they were unintentionally introducing another variable to the experiment. Later, they’d change bulbs with new bulbs of the same wattage. Employees were expecting increases or decreases, so they commented on these expected increases or decreases rather than recognizing that the lighting level hadn’t changed at all.
The experiments were initiated because the company was interested in how to increase productivity, and the results only spurred further interest in the way that employees worked. If the observer effect was so powerful, what other powerful forces were being left undiscovered?
The Relay Assembly Test Room
One of the many functions performed by the Hawthorne Works was the assembly of relays. Relays are electromechanical devices that are used in switching – particularly the kind of switching that was needed to operate the telephone network. The assembly operations were typically done with many operators in a large, open area. A particular section of relay assembly operators might be 100 people. To test changes in working conditions and their relationship to productivity, the Hawthorne Works pulled five volunteer operators into a specially-designed room where the conditions of work could be changed without affecting the entire group.
Care was taken to minimize the differences between the main room and the new relay test room. The intent was to have a controlled experiment, where only the changes in the working environment that the experimenters were testing would influence the results. However, what they discovered was that they unintentionally introduced major changes by separating the operators.
The Evolution of Cooperation and Collaboration both speak about social loafing – or the tendency for people to slack off in a group expecting others to carry their weight. However, the effect wasn’t well known at the time of the Hawthorne Works experiments. What wasn’t realized was the extent to which the compensation system allowed for social loafing to occur, nor were they aware of how to establish countervailing forces to keep social loafing in check.
The details of the payment system for workers is largely irrelevant, but what is important is that one component of their pay was based on the productivity of the group. That is, if everyone performed well, then there would be more money in everyone’s paycheck. The problem with this is that, when spread across 100 workers, no one felt as if their individual contribution was enough to make a difference. The result is that some of the workers would loaf, because they didn’t expect that they could make a difference in their pay.
When the operators were moved into the relay assembly test room, their pool went from a pool of 100 to a pool of 5. That meant that individual performance did matter; not only that, the group norm was also something that could be influenced.
Forming a Group
One of the other side effects of the changes was that the group naturally formed into a group operating unit. That is, they started to look out for and support one another. They intentionally tried to cover for each other’s poor days and genuinely cared for their fellow workers. This wasn’t an intentional byproduct of the change – nor was it replicable in further experiments – but the fact that the group became an operating unit had a profound effect on productivity. The relay assembly test room’s productivity kept climbing even as the experimental conditions continued to be changed in ways that should have had a negative effect on productivity.
Subsequent test rooms with similar conditions never formed a group and therefore didn’t see the continuous rise in productivity. This was likely influenced by the design of these other rooms, which specifically did not change the compensation in a way that made the room’s participants dependent upon each other and solely on each other. In other words, they sought to avoid solving the social loafing problems – and in doing so, they may have prevented the group from forming.
It’s time to side-step the material in the book for a moment and share the work of Richard Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence. He was focused on how you brought people together and got them to function together as a team. He would have said that the test rooms created at Hawthorne Works would not have fallen into his criteria as a team, because they weren’t performing interrelated tasks. They formed a group identity, because, in the case of the relay room, they felt a responsibility to one another. They didn’t have the benefit of some of the way that Navy SEALs train together nor the life and death circumstances. (See Stealing Fire for more.)
The personalities and perspectives were such in the relay assembly test room that they spontaneously formed a group. Some of this may have been the wedding of one of the operators, forming a bond, or the personality of another operator to push everyone towards working together. There’s no one single cause; instead, the set of conditions were sufficient that it happened.
Another unintended change in the test room was the change in supervision. While the operators were formally still supervised by the supervision structure of the main room, unofficially they were being managed by the experimental observer – and the relationship was very different. Instead of the kind of command and control experienced in the main room, the operators were treated with concern and compassion. One of the controls for the tests were the health of the employees, so their health was monitored.
Another was the ability to talk. While this at times exceeded the comfort level of both the observer and the individual operators, the ability to talk while they were working was greatly appreciated. While studies for fatigue were generally not successful in discovering fatigue, the ability to talk to one another was helpful in breaking up some of the monotony.
To frame this in the context of Reinventing Organizations, the test room was operating in Orange instead of Amber. The workers felt like there was a relationship to management instead of a competition with management in a struggle for power.
Readily apparent and frequently repeated were the concerns that the test room was a front for management to squeeze more performance out of the workers – instead of the stated objective of providing optimum working conditions. The difference is subtle but important. If they’re just trying to improve performance, the organization can do so at the expense of the workers. If they’re trying to create optimal conditions, the workers must be inside the circle of considerations.
Concerns about whether the workers were being taken advantage of – or things were moving in that direction – was a persistent theme both in the relay assembly test room and in the subsequent tests that the organization embarked upon. The lack of trust of the worker with the organization was palpable.
While the test room continued to make progress in allaying those fears, it seems as if they were never really fully quenched. As a result, there would be, from time to time, situations where it became necessary to revisit the intent, purpose, and mission associated with the tests.
More for Less
One curious way where working less generated more productive output was the introduction of paid breaks to the schedule. Breaks were added, thus reducing the total time working, and the output still increased. The given explanation for this was that the operators were trying to compensate for the time they were being given.
However, there’s another more subtle factor here. Operators were allowed personal time for their biological needs, and though they weren’t asked to, they tended to use a portion of their break times for these purposes. In this way, it seems that when management – or in this case, the experimenters – gave something the workers gave back.
The introduction of breaks was very well received personally, thus it seems that the workers were willing to work harder during their normal work periods to continue to be allowed the privilege of the breaks. Being an experiment, they were removed for a time, and this predictably resulted in the workers looking forward to their return.
The Mica Splitting Test Room
Because the relay assembly test room was such a success, there were attempts to replicate the results without the complicating factor of changing compensation. The results were not as dramatic, but there were external factors, which likely impacted the situation.
By the time the mica splitting test room was created, the Depression was already in effect. It has created a reduction in demand for all things, including the kinds of parts that the Hawthorne works was creating. In part due to this reduction in demand, the mica splitting function was gradually being moved to another plant. This impacted the folks in the main room more rapidly than in the test room, but eventually there was no longer a way to shield the test room from the changes.
However, before the room was shut down, it was already apparent that the fear of losing their job was reducing worker productivity. As the concern for mica-splitting jobs increased, their performance decreased.
However, another key difference was evident in the mica splitting test room. The five operators never fully integrated as a group. While there are some personality reasons for this, there was also the fact that their compensation never got tied to the group in the test room. They were still compensated in part by what was happening in the main room.
Management and the Worker concludes with a review of the interviewing that was done in the plant and its impact. A significant effort was undertaken to listen to workers at every level and to ensure that their perspectives were captured appropriately. Despite the fact that there was never any real intent to act upon these interviews, the workers reported that conditions were improving.
This reaction reveals how just listening to employees discuss their concerns has a twofold effect on improving the situation. First, supervisors, knowing that the workers are being listened to, made changes to their behaviors – consciously or unconsciously. This resolved many of the concerns.
Secondly, and more importantly, there seemed to be a psychic discharge, where once the items were heard, they were of less concern in the mind of the worker. The net effect of which was that the workers felt better – whether the conditions changed or not.
It may be that there’s still a lot to learn from experiments that were performed 90 years ago. It may reveal more about the relationship between Management and the Worker.
From HR.com’s Human Experience Excellence March 2021 edition. Read more: https://www.hr.com/en/magazines/recognition_engagement_excellence_essentials/march_2021_human_experience_excellence_engagement_performance_rewards_recognition/maintaining-human-connection-in-a-remote-world_km4m6s0p.html
I recently sat down with Mike Pastore of the B2B Nation Podcast to discuss dealing with burnout in marketing. Burnout is becoming an increasingly popular topic one year into the global pandemic. More than half of marketers say they have felt the effects of burnout in the past year, according to one survey. And many of the prospects marketers are trying to reach are also suffering from burnout, making them less receptive to marketing messages.
You can listen to the full podcast here: https://technologyadvice.com/blog/marketing/ways-to-deal-with-burnout/