Managing the “Balance of Consequences”

Even in a lean organization, with lean culture, you are confronted with the need to manage human behavior and performance, and address behavior problems. Sometimes old ideas, and even small ideas, can have a big impact. In every complex system, small changes can produce hugely significant consequences. Those who scoff at climate change research should be reminded that the great Ice Age resulted from only a six degree change in the average temperature in North America. Current climate chaos cannot be explained in a linear direct relationship between any two events. It can only be understood by understanding complex systems (or chaos) theory. Organization culture, like the natural environment, is a complex system in which slight changes in one sub-system can trigger changes in other sub-systems and can precipitate significant changes in outcome for the entire system.

As many of you know, I started my career working in prisons in North Carolina where I implemented a “token economy”, actually a checking economy, behind prison walls. This was an exercise in “behaviorism,” behavior modification, or organizational behavior management. One of the core beliefs of behaviorists is that “the data speaks”, or as B. F. Skinner said, “the pigeon is never wrong.” So, in my prison we kept data on almost every type of inmate and guard behavior we thought might be influenced by the implementation of our system of positive reinforcement for good behavior. I actually employed a college student to sit in the dormitories at night and record inmate-to-inmate and inmate-to-guard interactions, categorizing them into positive and negative, who initiated them, etc.

The Balance of Consequences

The result of this data was to conclude that while behavior in the work area had improved as a result of new forms of positive reinforcement for good work behavior, behavior in the dormitories had not improved. This was logical since the change in consequences to behavior was in the work areas. The good behavior did not generalize to the dormitories and interaction with guards. So… we came up with a scheme to cause the guards to interact more positively with the inmates. We gave them “bonus points” to hand out for agreed upon good behavior of inmates. These behaviors included helping other inmates; studying at night; cleaning the area, etc. It was a small thing. But, it tipped the “balance of consequences” for the guards. It resulted in a huge change in the behavior of both inmates and guards. Not only did the guards initiate more positive interactions, the inmates initiates more positive interactions with both guards and other inmates. In other words, the degree to which inmates were managing the guard’s behavior decreased and the degree to which the guards were managing inmate behavior increased.

The idea of a balance of consequences is that for every decision or behavior, there are likely to be consequences, both positive and negative, on both sides of the equation. Deciding to take job A or to take job B involves assessing the balance of consequences, potential rewards and potential negative events for either choice. It doesn’t require shifting all of the weight in one direction, it only requires a slight shift in consequences to tip the teeter-totter.

One reality of most work setting is that the first level of management works very closely with the work force. The front line supervisor or team leader is closely tied to the social system of the first level workers. It is natural that they want to get along with them, even seek there approval. It was clear in the prison that most guards had good relationships with most inmates and they were reluctant to punish bad behavior, thereby causing negative consequences that would come back to them. They “got-along” with the inmates by ignoring some behavior that they should not have ignored. Given the realities of the system, they were intelligently managing their relationships, those that mattered in their day-to-day world.

Tipping the Scales

Managers do the same. Often their behavior is managed upward. Employees have many ways of displaying approval and disapproval of the managers behavior and it is natural that they seek approval. This, however, can result in the front line manager ignoring or letting pass slow or sloppy work.

I am reminded of a research project done some years ago in a classroom. The researcher instructed the children, in the teachers absence, to “attend” to the teacher (give eye contact, lean forward, nod their heads) when the teacher was on the left side of the room, and to ignore the teacher when she was on the right side of the room. The classroom was video taped before and after and, not surprisingly, the teacher “learned” to stand to the left side of the classroom the majority of the day. The researcher then reversed the procedure and, again, the teacher responded by modifying her behavior to gain the attention of the students. To some degree, every manager is like that teacher, seeking approval from those they manage.

But, what happens when the team members approve of the leader ignoring their poor or slow work? The question then comes, how do you create less dependence on the approval of the workforce, and more willingness on the part of the first level leader to both recognize good performance and to respond to poor performance? Here are a couple possibilities. I would like to hear your ideas:

1. Adherence to standards and standard work: In a traditional assembly line factory there are generally work standards and standard work. An employee is expected to produce X amount by doing Y tasks in the specified way. There are both standard work outputs and there are standardized tasks. Leader standard work generally includes the tasks of the leader to measure, observe and provide feedback on the degree of conformance to these standards. However, most work today is not of this assembly line or routine factory type. For example, the maintenance function in manufacturing involves a high degree of variability. How long does it take to fix different equipment under different conditions? It is often non-standard. In many cases it is possible for the team leader to use his or her judgment to determine how long repairing equipment should take. Getting them to assert that judgment in the face of pressure from employees is the problem.

2. Creating Connections to Larger Outcomes: We are often not able to see the direct connection between our work and larger outcomes for the organization. If I arrive to work on time, will the company be more profitable and will my job security increase? Probably, but the connections are too remove. Creating “line-of-sight” is one of management’s jobs. In other words, if I perform in X manner, that contributes to Y performance of the larger group. We have to make work important. A good example is the hospital worker who cleans halls and rooms. You can simply call him a “maintenance man.” Or, you can define his job as “reducing the risk of infection for patients.” He is part of the team, one whose work contributes to successful health outcomes for patients. This is similar to Disney’s practices of defining every employee at their theme parks as “members of the cast.” Maids cleaning room are taught that how they clean, how the talk to guests, is part of the total entertainment experience. They are cast members. These definitions help the employee understand the “line-of-sight” from their work to the more significant organization outcomes. What are some other ways of creating this “line-of-sight?”

3. Tip the Balance-of-Consequences for the Team Leader: You will never remove the potential of employees managing upward. Sometimes that is a positive force. But, sometimes that works against taking action against poor performers. Remember the balance of consequences. You don’t have to shift all of the consequences in on direction. You simply have to make a slight shift that tips the balance. How are team leaders rewarded for the good performance of their teams? If there is strong positive reinforcement for the manager, he or she is more likely to take action to enhance the performance of the entire team. You have to make performance matter for both first level employees and first level team leaders.

Ask yourself this question: “If the performance of the team increases, what is the so-what for the leader? Why does it matter for the leader?” And, what are the consequences if performance decreases? If there are no significant consequences for the team leader, then it is likely that the consequences of team member approval will outweigh the need to act on poor performance.

4. Tip the Balance-of-Consequences for the Entire Team: Never under estimate the power of peer approval or pressure. Team members often perform to please other team members. What happens if the entire team improves its performance? What are the consequences? How can you increase the positive consequences through recognition, incentives, opportunities, etc., for the entire team? Or, are there currently forms of reinforcement for the team slowing down their work? How can the system be changed to eliminate this reinforcement for poor performance? Here are just a few ideas for tipping the scales:

  • How is team performance measured so that records are set? It is always fun to compete for and set new records for any performance. This is a strong bias in our culture. When you watch any sport, think about how often records are discussed, competed for, and celebrated. How often does this happen at work? Why not?
  • Is there a team of the week, month or year award? How can you celebrate outstanding team performance?
  • Is there an award for team performance improvement or cost savings ideas?
  • Is there a system by which one team, who may be the customer of another internal team, can positively recognize the performance of that team? For example, if maintenance work is completed rapidly, can the the team who uses the equipment recognize the maintenance team? Can the maintenance team recognize line teams for doing preventive maintenance and causing fewer repairs?

What have you found to be effective in tipping the balance of consequences, the motivation for first level managers, so that they will confront poor performance and recognize the good performance of their front line teams? It would be useful to compile a list of things that have worked in one place and might then be tried in another.

Most important, experiment! Be the scientist, trying out different things until you find the system that works best in your organization. After all they are all different.

Managing the culture is the art of managing a complex system, managing through chaos. Analyzing human behavior and motivation is a key skill for all managers. But, no where is it more essential than in that first level relationship between team leaders and team members.