“Hold everybody accountable? Ridiculous!”


This is a quote from quality systems pioneer W. Edwards Deming. It runs completely counter to decades of business and public policy arguments that holding people accountable is vital to organizational success.

The idea makes sense in principle – but often works poorly in practice. The problem (I think) is that sometimes we take actions in response to non-performance that are seen as punitive – all in the name of accountability.

One example can be found in the No Child Left Behind legislation passed initially in 2001. After years of trying to hold schools and teachers accountable, we have succeeded in forcing teachers to teach “to the test” and demonstrated little measurable improvement. (According to Education Secretary Duncan, 4 out of 5 schools are failing today to meet their NCLB benchmarks.

Striking the right balance between challenging people to be accountable and alternately trying to positively motivate them with pay incentives and performance appraisals is really tricky.
Here are some ideas that may help:

1) Look to a systems cause FIRST before looking for a people cause of non-performance.  Mostly employees want to do the right thing. When outcomes are bad, the only legitimate people issues are that they didn’t care, or deliberately violated the process, policies or procedures. If they didn’t care, then you probably made a bad hiring decision, or destroyed their spirit. If so YOU need to fix it.  If they DID care and simply made a poor judgment; isn’t it better to make it a teachable moment rather than a punishable one?

2) Metrics should be for helping people understand what’s happening in a system, never for punitive purposes. We believe in data and that having it is helpful to know if we are getting better or worse. We stumble often when we use metrics as a part of a carrot-stick system to theoretically drive better performance. When we apply too much pressure (by penalizing, punishing, or taking away money) we can trigger a sense of fear or resentment. This generally can lead to finger pointing, and blaming. It also will likely cause your employees to withhold bad news and information from you. None of these are good things.

Dr. Deming argued in his famous book “Out of Crisis” that “The annual review nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, and nourishes rivalry and politics . . . . “

3) Every Failure to meet goals is also an opportunity for organizational learning. View failure as on opportunity first . . . to learn as a team what went wrong, and why. It is most likely that a healthy group effort to explore these new dynamics will reveal bad past assumptions, or new factors operating in the market that were never considered when we designed our existing processes. Remember always: Blame the system first, not your people.

4) Ask yourself what other forces are adversely impacting team decision making.  From my experiences the main culprit was often the incentive and performance appraisal systems. It is clear that metrics, incentives and appraisals WILL drive employee behavior. The ONLY question is “do these drive the right ones?” I often found that performance incentives that seemed rational sometimes created friction between two opposing goals that we both want. (Don’t we all want high quality AND low cost? How should your employees decide how much of each to deliver?)

5) Don’t overlook company culture.  We do pay attention to our incentive an d metric targets. But culture also drives behaviors around such things as how flexible we will be, how much initiative we will take, how much risk we will assume, how fast we will act, and how we will strike a balance between conflicting goals and objectives. We should always be looking for signs that our culture is inducing the right “biases” into our rational decision making.

See related article on Why Performance Appraisals Don’t Work. Take our poll. 

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Filed under Leading, Systems Thinking

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