This is the third blog post in a series of seven. As a manager today, you may often feel uncomfortable or even out of place. It reminds me of the children’s story about Rip Van Winkle: he slept for decades, and when he awoke everything had changed dramatically, leaving him out of place and off balance.
The world has changed, and our leadership thinking must evolve to match the change. We continue to make mistakes because we are relying on outdated leadership models. This causes us to make serious mistakes. The purpose of this series of blog posts is to share those mistakes, offer alternative ways of thinking, and provide options for adapting and taking a different approach.
Mistake #3: believing an improvement in employee performance improves organizational performance
A system is a series of interdependent parts that work together to achieve a specific purpose. In a social system, such as an organization, the parts are interdependent and therefore one part can significantly influence the performance of other parts. We can’t separate out the performance of each individual part in a system without destroying the system performance.
Water’s properties of “wetness” are the result of the interaction between hydrogen and oxygen. These properties can only be observed when just the right amount of hydrogen interacts with the right amount of oxygen. The same is true for people in a social system. Their interactions will create results that cannot exist without the interactions that occur between them. These results emerge from the interactions and the quality of those interactions. The results cannot be accurately evaluated and interpreted without an understanding of how these interactions occur.
It’s the quality of the interactions we must improve and not just the quality of the individual parts.
We have been taught flawed assumptions
We can evaluate individual performances in isolation from the contributions of others.
We can evaluate individual performances in isolation from the influence of the work environment.
We can evaluate individuals without stereotyping and without focusing on specific recent events.
A better alternative
It is impossible to accurately evaluate any part of a system (such as individual performance) without considering the influence of the system, because the interactions of the component parts are so complex. One part of the system will influence other parts, sometimes in ways that can’t be observed or even measured.
When problems seem on the surface to be “people problems”, the related systems must be investigated carefully, and most often, that will reveal the real root causes.
One day, while traveling out of state, I received the gift of a golf club from a client. When it came time to fly back home, I had forgotten to consider that post-9/11 restrictions for airplane carry-on would not allow me to take the golf club with me on the plane. Instead, my choices for getting it safely home were either to check it as baggage or to ship it. I chose to check it.
At the airline counter the attendant tagged the club and placed it on the baggage belt. My first thought was, “I’ll never see that club again!” And just as I had anticipated, when I arrived in New York there was no golf club. I went immediately to the lost baggage department, where I waited and waited, while the agent searched for the claim forms. When he finally found the forms, he asked me to fill them out describing the club in detail.
Again, I was asked to wait. At one point, the agent said, “Why didn’t you ship it?” My first reaction was anger, fueled by suspicion that the club had been stolen by the baggage handlers. I was also angry at his unhelpful attitude. I snapped back at the clerk. With claim form in hand and nothing more to do, I went on my way without the club or satisfaction.
Two days passed without any word from the airline. I called the phone number on the claim form. Not surprisingly, no one answered the phone. I left a message. No callback came, not even the next day. At that point, I was totally convinced that the club would never be returned. To my surprise, the very next day the club arrived via FedEx.
The golf club story demonstrates that when the airline’s baggage handling system is unreliable, the people inside and outside of the organization suffer the consequences and waste their time and a customer’s time. Checking baggage today is a complex process. Checking a single, lone golf club stresses the system even more. The lack of effective systems causes employees to make inappropriate comments and customers to snap, making things worse.
Learning how to think in terms of a system requires practice and patience. I lost my patience and blamed the baggage handlers for my missing golf club, even accusing them of theft. That was a mistake, and it didn’t help me at all. If I had continued to think in terms of a system, I would not have made such disrespectful accusations. If the baggage manager had understood how his system worked, he could have avoided the upset. Conducting a performance review with the baggage handler will not help to get my golf club back to me sooner next time. The entire system was responsible for the results. Leaders who understand systems are much more successful in achieving employee engagement and customer experience results.
Wally Hauck, PhD, CSP, helps leaders boost profit by unleashing the genius of every employee. He shows leaders how to get the best from their teams, with proven methods and by avoiding morale-busting mistakes, so they can achieve their strategic goals more quickly and with less waste.
For more than 20 years, Wally has worked with nearly 200 organizations, hundreds of leaders, and thousands of employees to optimize engagement and customer experience. Many have achieved significant transformational improvements.
Wally holds a doctorate in organizational leadership from Warren National University, a Master of Business Administration in finance from Iona College, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. Wally is a Certified Speaking Professional or CSP. As a professor of Organizational Change and Development at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, Wally received the highest ratings of all professors in 2012.
Wally has been married to his lovely wife Lori for over 26 years. They have two daughters, one son, three grandchildren, two rescue dogs and a very dysfunctional cat. Wally has a passion for golf, family, politics, and good movies, not necessarily in that order.
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