Announcing the Workplace Study Probe
I'm undertaking a data collection project to help me and my associates understand how employees view their workplaces. Argyle Analytics specifically wants to know if employees have the right supports and intrinsic characteristics to feel successful in their jobs.
In this three-part blog post introducing this study, I will introduce the work of two of the brightest luminaries in my field: Thomas F. Gilbert and Roger Chevalier. Both Tom and Roger made significant contributions to the area of workplace performance improvement. In the first part of this article, I will share Tom's work at a high level. In the second part, I will show how businesses can leverage Tom's work and how Roger expanded Tom's work through is own unique perspective. In the third, and final, part of this post I will go more in-depth on Argyle Analytic's Workplace Probe Study and how we hope to use the results to further Tom's and Roger's legacy in our work. But first, I need to share my perspective on toxic work environments, because it relates right back to the primary topic of this three-part post.
Toxic Workplaces Are not Normal
Toxic work environments are soul crushing places to be. I think almost everyone I know has at least one experience of working for a toxic boss or as part of a toxic workplace. When I ask people to describe a toxic workplace the popular television show, The Office, often comes up. Each character on the show brings something uniquely awful to Dunder Mifflin, but the character of Michael Scott is probably the most iconic media representation of the emotionally dysfunctional leader. Michael's limitations and weaknesses contribute directly to the stress, frustration, and exhaustion of his staff and serve as the basis for much of the humor in the show. What's worse, Michael is incapable of seeing how he impacts his employees and often uses emotional manipulation to maintain their loyalty and compliance. We laugh at The Office for the same reasons ancient Greeks loved watching tragic theatre; because we can reveal in seeing other people suffer worse than we do. I've yet to encounter someone who couldn't relate in some way to the insanity of Michael Scott and I don't think it's a stretch to presume that we can all agree that such behavior a the boss will create and sustain a toxic work environment.
I Started Working In Training Consulting Because Of A Toxic Workplace
Let me be blunt; I started working in the training and development world because I had a toxic work environment right out of college. Having just completed my BS in Psychology, I worked for a small business conducting telephone surveys for public health interests and government agencies. This company is no longer in business, but I will avoid name dropping to protect the innocent. Despite the toxic work environment, there were several good hardworking folks at the company and I want to honor their efforts over the many years the company was in operation. Much of the toxicity was limited to the little team to which I belonged. My title at this job was Data Analyst, and during the interview process, the hiring manager told me I would help conduct data analysis and aid clients in survey design. I thought it was a dream come true because I loved statistical analysis and I was the first student in the Boise State University psychology program to design an online survey to streamline the data collection process.
The Honeymoon Comes to A Crashing Halt
After about three months on the job, I started feeling as though things were not quite right. For starters, I wasn't doing data analysis. I was mainly doing word processing to convert client survey files into Microsoft Word documents. Completing this task was essential for the data collection staff to help test the survey once I programmed into the computer-aided telephone interviewing system. The processing of surveys from one document format to another was probably the single most mind-numbing set of activities I have ever engaged in as a professional. The average survey testing document was often more than 100 pages, and the sheer level of detail to track across those 100 pages gives me a headache just thinking about it. What turned out to be worse was when the data collection team testing the survey came back with recommendations from the field on how to rephrase questions for better "speakability" over the phone -- which contributes directly to response rates of a telephone survey -- my team almost always rejected the changes on grounds that I feel comfortable describing as classist. "What do they know," one of my peers commented, "most of them barely completed highschool and half of them speak English as a second language." As a side note, Argyle Analytics' dedication to workplace diversity and inclusion is partly rooted in this experience.
When I wasn't processing Word documents, I was working with some kludgey Microsoft Access databases to process survey results. These amateur databases would often throw off weird and random errors I had to track down in the data and then manually resolve. To give you a sense of how mind-numbing this was, imagine an Excel spreadsheet with over 2,000 rows and over 100 columns. Now imagine having to hunt down a single error based on some cryptic error log from the data processing application, cross-check it against the source file, then double-check the programming of the survey, and then making a decision about how to fix the error. Now repeat this process across two dozen times a day for 20 or more clients.
My boss at the time paid for some generic Microsoft Access training, but my workplace had a very odd notion about the degree to which the training applied to the work I was doing. When I tried to explain to my boss that the training was too generic for it to be helpful, she turned it around and suggested that maybe I wasn't trying hard enough or that I had not focused during the training. Her assertions were rather insulting considering how I still figured out how to do the job; mainly by being browbeaten by her and my coworkers. Again, this early career experience gave fertile ground for Argyle Analytics' dedication to aligning training content to job tasks when we design training programs.
My office, while close-knit, communicated mostly via email using it as an instant messaging system; this pre-dated tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams. The lack of authentic communication resulted in some very odd patterns of interaction between my team members. What Person A said to your face didn't match up with what she told Person B via email, which would not match what Person C later told you as a way of undermining Person A. Ultimately, this left me feeling totally out of sorts when asking questions about the fundamental nature of my job. If this sounds like your workplace, then we should talk since Argyle Analytics can supply you with some amazing communication coaches.
Finally, The Toxic Work Environment Showed Me the Door
I lasted a year before I was asked to leave. At the time I had a hard time seeing it, but this was the real start of my career. Even at the time, I was frustrated, but not really angry. In hindsight, I'm grateful they showed me the door because it set me on the path I've been walking for nearly a decade. I could see the long-term writing on the wall for this company and I had never intended to stick around longer than it took me to find the right graduate program. The company had no real future other than to sustain itself and try to hold on for as long as it could. Eventually, market forces drove the company to close its doors. I would argue that some of what I experienced during my time there were symptoms of a more systemic problem, one that prevented the company from adapting and surviving. The company's managers simply did not have an educated and informed perspective on what was driving performance within the company other than to equate individual performance with moralistic assumptions about the nature of each person's personal work ethic. I have a saying I've developed over the years based on this expereince and I think it still holds true today.
Millennial Don't Create Toxic Work Cultures
When I recount my experiences to others, I sometimes encounter some odd anti-Mellenial sentiment since blaming my generation for any number of workplace woes is quite fashionable. Most of the complaints I see about my generation typical stem from young 20-somethings walking into a workplace fresh from the university environment or having helicopter parents who didn't to a great job of preparing their kids for a world that doesn't orient around our egos. I see this a lot, and it honestly looks like victim blaming, and the economic analysis is starting to support that assessment.
I doubt there is anything genuinely exceptional about my generation other than the prevalence of higher education, the vast quantity of student debt we carry, and the fluidity we have with digital environments. I believe we have more in common with our grandparents' generation in many respects, and I think our perspective on the workplace are somewhat similar. We have a low tolerance for what we see as nonsense, we tend to be a bit more pragmatic and we are constantly pointing out where operations could be improved by working smarter not harder. We often question why work processes are the way they are and our fluidity with technology gives us a perspective on automation that many of my more seasoned colleagues don't understand. We also tend to clash with bosses who expect compliance and docility while also expecting initiative and innovation. From our perspective, if we have a vision for how automation can reduce drudgery at work and save our company money we get confused with we are accused of just wanting to avoid mind-numbing work that doesn't fully utilize our talents. Whereas my grandparents worked hard for their children to have a better life, it almost seems at times like my parents' generation wants us to have no better a life than they did. If we succeed in our attempts to improve things then we expect to be rewarded for that contribution since it went above and beyond simply performing a job like just another part of a machine. I don't feel like that attitude is unreasonable and if any of my readers do, well, then I'm sure we could still enjoy a cup of coffee while discussing other topics.
How The Work Gets Done Matters
One of my favorite luminaries on management theory was born around the time both my grandparents entered the world. W. Edwards Deming (1900 - 1993) is attributed with saying:
I happen to agree with Dr. Deming quite a lot, at least on this point and it resonates with my early work experiences. What Deming is saying here is that deep-seeded issues will not budge if you don't address the root-cause of a problem. This is applicable to training because training will not help employees be more productive if the process they must execute is cumbersome and inefficient. Training folks to carry out a poorly developed process will not make the process more efficient. When organizations stick their heads in the sand about their internal processes and resort to Mellenial-blaming for all their woes is it any wonder why my generation has a reputation for bouncing shortly after joining an organization? There are more complex factors that drive organizational performance, not just the boss's personal perspective on work ethic, and that's what we will discuss next.
What Drives Organizational Performance?
While toxic work cultures are not at epidemic levels, they are far more common than I believe we should tolerate in a professional setting. The existence of poorly designed business processes, poorly managed teams, and psycho-toxic persons creating adverse work environments will show their influences in just about any measure of company performance. There are many ways to measure corporate performance, but the most common metric is revenue and profit. The profit margin, however, is a lagging indicator of performance and does not provide insight into how the company works, only that it does. Businesses need canaries in the coal mine to help them know when things are taking a turn for the worse long before they get worse, but there is hope. The nature of organizational performance means that you can start drilling down into the business to identify leverage points that, if nudged in the right way at the right time, can produce measurable results that improve the bottom line. What's dangerous is when toxic people become a leverage point that hampers -- not helps -- performance. Workplace culture, for good or ill, is undoubtedly just one leverage point of many that represent opportunities for the savvy entrepreneur. I believe all business owners need to be savvy about which leverage points will be most effective at moving the needle. Prioritizing the strategic importance of various leverage points is beyond the scope of my post, but there are some general principles that I think will help guide anyone tasked with moving that needle.
Think of Performance Problems as Gaps To Close
While it might be easiest to blame the individual worker for their poor job performance we need to think more holistically. We need to look at the performance of the entire group and not just a single worker. When the whole group is notably lacking in their performance, we need to pause and look more in-depth at what's going on.
Deming is not alone in this thinking about the impact systems play in workplace performance. Thomas F. Gilbert (1927–1995) was a performance improvement consultant (may he rest in peace) who helped establish the field of Human Performance Improvement consulting as a professional discipline. Like Deming, Gilbert -- and many of his contemporaries such as Geary A. Rummler and Alan P. Brache -- will point the finger at factors outside the individual worker that managers should consider well before moralizing about work ethic, intelligence, or some other percieved character flaw.
Tom wrote a book on the topic and it's one that I recommend every manager read.
The book itself can be a little academic, but it's worth brewing a pot of coffee to help you power through the first few chapters.
Thomas Gilbert's enduring legacy to my profession is the Behavior Engineering Model (BEM). Some of my readers may recognize this model as the "Six Boxes" approach popularized by Carl Binder in which he layers the BEM on top other consulting methodologies like logic modeling.
The Behavior Engineering Model is a potent tool to think with, so I will take a little time to unpack the BEM for you.
The Behavior Engineering Model has two levels of analysis baked in:
- The Environment which refers to a person's working conditions
- The Worker which refers to the person doing the work
Within the Behavior Engineering Model, three factors intersect each level of the model:
- Information by which a worker can navigate his or her world of work and adapt to changing conditions
- Resources by which a worker achieves an outcome valued by the customer
- Motivators by which a worker stays committed to the work
When you lay these factors out on a grid, you get a nifty little framework for analyzing workplace performance issues.
To help explain this a little further, I will summarize each of the different boxes. Now, every consultant has a slightly different way of labeling these boxes and what I'm sharing is my professional interpretation. Before publishing this post, I asked a few colleagues to review and assess my understanding, and they've all agreed that I have the right of it.
Information & Feedback
Information and Feedback are the primary factors that can impact employee performance. Information and feedback can be anything from competitor intelligence to personnel reviews. Standard operating procedures, accessible product information, process maps, 360-feedback sessions, employee engagement survey; the list of information and feedback sources goes on an on. The old saying that "knowledge is power" is the true spirit of this performance factor.
Tools & Resources
Tools and resources are the next two places you should look to find opportunities for performance improvement. I'll tell you a story to illustrate. I have a cousin who worked for a company where the owner of the company was brilliant in his field, but he was not very savvy about the technology upon which his business relies. At one point, my cousin told me that the owner wanted to send all his employees to computer training because they were less productive and tasks took longer than they used to. When I asked my cousin, "Is that what's really going on?" she shared that the company had not upgraded their computers in the last ten years, but kept installing new software. Older computers won't have the processing power to run newer software and this has been the case for the last quarter century. Since the owner refused to learn how to use a computer, he was tone deaf to the complaints of his employees on this point. This anecdote nicely demonstrates the following position; the lack of proper tools and time will result in decreased organizational performance.
Incentives are the next factor managers should look at when it comes to the performance of their employees. Thinking that money is the only incentive your employees care about is a rookie mistake. Advancement, skills acquisition, prestige, working from home, benefits, having a dog-friendly work environment are all examples of non-monetary incentives. For example, Millennials resist the notion that they have to work in the office all the time. If you want to incentivize your Millennial workforce, work with your HR and Operations teams to develop a work-from-home strategy that all employees can use. Set standards, policies, and the criteria by which employees can earn the work from home perk. Retroactively apply those criteria to employees who have been with you a long time and inform the rest of the workforce about how to qualify for the program. If you tie the earning the perk to measurable performance you now have a great incentive to encourage workers to do their best.
Skills & Knowledge
Skills and knowledge is a pretty obvious factor since workers have to have the skills to pay the bills. If your employees do not have the right education, professional training, certifications, or necessary experience, then they cannot perform on the job. Argyle Analytics delivers performance-based training solutions which means we deliver learning experiences tailored to your business goals. We can deliver lectures if that's what you want, but we really want you to consider all your options first.
Capacity refers to an individual's ability to do the job. Ensuring your workers can do a job is mostly a function of the hiring process. The hiring process must take into consideration job requirements while balancing the availability of qualified candidates. There will never be a perfect balance and most companies will have to train their employees. However, review and critical assessment of how your company hires people is essential. For example, if you run a tech company, you need tech savvy employees. You shouldn't just focus on hiring for education and experience. Imagine if you ran a tech company and you had salespeople who struggled to use your web conferencing software in a fluid manner. Imagine the impression that makes on your clients. If you do need to hire folks who excel in one area, but are really struggling with other core competencies in the job, work with your HR department to develop a competency model that can serve as a strong basis for training and development programs along with bolstering your performance review process.
However, there are aspects of capacity that delve into the world of accessibility. Argyle Analytics has experts available to advise our clients on how to navigate this space in a way that's ethical, legal, and inclusive.
Motivations are the last factor we will address in today's post. This factor is a powerful one, but it is also a hard one to solve with training. In my world of work, clients often equate motivation with engagement since a motivated workforce will appear "engaged," but each business tends to define engagement a little differently. Even stakeholders within the same organization may have strong opinions about engagement that contradict one another. For Argyle Analytics, we see motivation as the why behind worker activity. Why are they coming to work? Why do they persist when times are tough? Why do they avoid specific tasks, but not others? Why do they tell all their friends the company is a great employer? These are all questions that might touch on motivation, but there are some tricky considerations when looking at motives. Let's use the example of an employee evangelizing for the company as a great employer. On the surface, this might sound like a great supplement to recruiting efforts, but what if that employee is lazy and one of your worst performers? Do you really want to bother interviewing any of the people they refer to your recruiters? They may appear motivated and engaged on the surface, but this person might evangelize for the company because of lax standards in management and his ability to slack-off because no one is looking. Training the management team to do a better job of supervising employees could decrease this employee's motivation along with the motivation of others even if it increases performance in other ways. Argyle Analytics can provide you with experts on organizational behavior and how to change those behaviors without creating perverse incentives.
Stay Tuned For Part Two
This blog post is long enough as it is, but there is still more to cover. In part two of this post, I will cover Tom's work in a more applied manner. I will also introduce the work of Roger Chevalier and how Roger's work is a significant step forward for performance consulting.
I want to close by inviting you to participate in the Workplace Probe Study. This brief survey asks questions about what factors in your work influence your performance. The survey is confidential, and we plan to share the results regularly, but first, we need your help to collect enough data to make the report meaningful. Please take a few minutes to share your work experiences.