Category Archives: Culture

A Matter of Judgement

“You said the manager-once-removed is in the best position to engage the team member as a mentor,” Brendon asked. “You said the MOR has a realistic assessment of the team member’s performance. I know the MOR has access to the KPIs for the team member, but so do a lot of other people. Why the MOR?”

“KPIs are actually a lousy indicator of performance,” I replied. “The direct manager and the MOR, in their monthly 1-1 coaching discussion should do a 60-second team member review. If there are ten people on the team, that’s 10 minutes.”

“But, how could you review individual KPIs in 60 seconds?” Brendon wanted to know.

“I wouldn’t use KPIs. KPIs are important, to examine throughput of a system, but results, overall, are not in the control of a team member, or an indication of an individual’s performance. I know you subscribe to results-based-performance, but any factors you choose to follow cannot be relied upon in any sustained fashion. At best they will only be a clue, at worst, those factors may mislead.”

“But, we use objective numbers,” Brendon protested. “We manage by measurement.”

“Just because you use a number, does not make it objective. What if you are measuring the wrong thing? You cannot translate a living system into separate discrete factors. You have to account for the whole system, assessment is still a judgement. It is a judgement made by both the direct manager and the MOR.”

“Then how do we make that assessment?” Brendon was curious.

“A series of very simple questions,” I said.

  • Is the team member operating satisfactorily within the level of work?
  • Is the team member operating in the top half or the bottom half of the level?
  • And, in that half, top, middle or bottom?

It is a simple way to state effectiveness. Every manager can answer those questions.

“And if the response is not satisfactory, the diagnosis follows one of these four absolutes –

  • Is it a matter of capability?
  • Is it a matter of skill (that could be improved by training, education or experience?)
  • Is it a matter of interest or passion for the work, does the team member place a high value on the work?
  • Is it a matter of required behavior? Is there a violation of contracted behavior? Is there a habit that does not support a required behavior? Is there a violation of our accepted culture (required behaviors)?

“Make the assessment, then diagnose. At best, KPIs are only a clue. Personal effectiveness is a managerial judgement.”

A Slow Nuanced Dance

“Fixing accountability is the first step to creating a context of trust,” Pablo shifted. “When accountability is not clearly defined, or placed at the wrong level, mistrust begins a slow nuanced dance, often imperceptible. But it’s there. People begin to feel insecure about their own jobs, not sure where this career may or may not be taking them, squabbles emerge about equitable pay, stress among working relationships and blaming behavior.”

“Sounds like a bit of insecurity?” I ask. “Isn’t that why we do psychometric testing, to weed those people out?”

“People behave as people behave, in the context of their surroundings,” Pablo chuckled. “We think the success of a managerial system depends of the psychology of its individuals, when its success depends more on its design. Change the context, behavior follows. Go into a church or synagogue and you will see people sitting quietly, barely speaking. Does that mean they are all introverts and poor communicators? Go to a soccer stadium where a goal has just been scored and you will see people screaming, jumping up and down. Does that mean they are all extroverts with a boisterous personality. It’s all about context.”

Pablo stopped before he finished. “Fixing accountability is the first step to creating a context of trust.”

Carrots and Sticks

“People have a fair, intuitive sense of their own capability,” Pablo continued. “And, they yearn for opportunity to exercise their full potential. To do otherwise causes people to wilt. A great deal of a person’s self-esteem, even identity comes from the value they see in the work that they do.”

“So, the system in which they work has impact on how they behave?” I floated.

“It’s not just the system, it’s what people believe about the system. What we believe, our assumptions, the way we see the world is what drives our behavior. Look, the real question is, if we believe that people want to fully participate at their highest level of capability, spread their wings toward independence, that they do not need a carrot and stick to get on with their work, then what kind of managerial system would we create?”

“This sounds a bit idealistic, don’t you think?” I countered.

“Not at all,” Pablo replied. “This is about hard nosed work. Making decisions and solving problems, tough decisions and difficult problems.”

Assumptions About Work

“I would assume most companies have real problems to solve, so what do you mean, if you want your team to feel high levels of job satisfaction, you give them a real problem?” I asked.

Pablo thought for a moment. “Sometimes, companies engage in contrived exercises. To build a team, they take a group to a local ropes course, or a game of tug-of-war over a mud pit. Those exercises provide only temporary relief, short-lived when the team returns to work. The work itself has to be satisfying.”

“What leads a company astray?” I wanted to know.

“Oh, that’s not so hard to understand,” Pablo replied. “First, I think we have misconceptions about why people work. And, then we base our managerial systems on those misconceptions. It’s a flywheel that eats itself.”


“Some companies think people work only because they have to, only in exchange for meager compensation to put food on their table. Or, more substantial compensation so they can buy a boat. They believe employees are simply self-centered and have no inherent need to work. That our labor system exists only as a commodity. It’s a scarcity mentality.”

“As opposed to?” I said.

“People have an inherent need to work. People have an inherent need to contribute, to their own self-independence, and also to the positive social systems in which we live. Look at the number of hours in a work week. It has been coming down over time, but in the US is currently settled at around 40 hours. People need a substantial, material amount of sustained work, where they can contribute their full capability to solving problems and making decisions. Managerial systems based on this understanding are much different than those based on greed.”

The First Step is Not a Step

How to start? What to do before you start?

The first step is a mental state. How you get there is up to you. Before you start, your mind is wandering, aimlessly, subject to the whims of where you are, the circumstances in which you find yourself. The first step is to break the pattern, break the pattern of your mental state.

Some do it with meditation. Some do it with a mental exercise. Some do it with a physical sensation, as simple as rubbing two fingers together. Basic Assumption Mental State is a phrase coined by Wilfred Bion, made understandable by Pat Murray (BAMS).

It’s just a shift
How do you shift the mental state of a group? Focus each member on a common question. It could be as simple as a common experience, an understanding of purpose (Why are we here?), thoughts about mission (When we are finished, what does life look like?) or even just some Good News (tell us something positive that happened in the last two weeks).

Create a positive mental state. Now, you are ready to proceed to the first (next) step.

Process and People

“I feel a bit overwhelmed,” admitted Melissa. “There are so many things that can go wrong on this project, and I’m just not sure if I can manage it all.”

“You are right,” I replied. “You cannot manage every detail. Success consists of the execution of a hundred things, most of which cannot be managed.”

“Then how?”

“Most things we accomplish as managers consist of process and systems with elements that can be measured and managed. But that is only part of the story. Success also requires elements like focused attention, cooperation with team members and commitment to the result. Those are elements, difficult to measure, but more importantly, almost impossible to manage. You cannot manage focus, cooperation and commitment. This is the people side of management, and people don’t want to be managed.”

Melissa was silent, thinking. “The people side is more difficult than the process side, and maybe more important. I think I would take a mediocre process with some fired up people, over a spectacular process with a poor attitude.”

COVID-19 is Shattering Your Culture

Culture is that unwritten set of rules that governs our required behavior, in the work that we do together. If it was written rules, that would be your standard operating procedures. Culture is largely unwritten.

It’s all about behavior. Of course there are ideals, beliefs and assumptions we hold that drive those behaviors, but culture is all about behavior.

Culture (ideals, beliefs and assumptions) are reinforced through customs and rituals. COVID-19 is shattering your culture, throwing you out of your rhythm. Look at your customs and rituals. Perhaps, now is the time to double-down on your customs, examine your rituals. What are you doing to hold your team together?

How Culture Touches the Work

Culture is that unwritten set of rules that defines and enforces the required behaviors in the work that we do together. Many things we do are written down and comprise our standard operating procedures. But most things are unwritten. And, when we think of culture, here are some things that are often missed.

  • Who can belong to our team? (Membership)
  • Who has the authority to make decisions, in what situations?
  • How are team members given work assignments?
  • How often are team members given work assignments?
  • Do team members depend on work product from other team members?
  • How do team members hand off work to other team members? (Integration)
  • When a team member completes a work assignment, how does their supervisor know?
  • When a team member completes a work assignment, how do they know what to work on next?
  • Does anyone review or inspect their work?
  • How often is their work reviewed or inspected?
  • Are they permitted to continue on additional work before their current work has been reviewed?
  • Do they work on multiple assignments simultaneously?

The people system is the most important system you work on. This is just the start.

What Went Wrong?

“What do you think is the most difficult, planning or execution?” I asked.

“Planning is no slouch,” Travis replied, “but execution is where things go wrong. We may have a perfect plan, but we don’t have perfect execution.”

“Travis, sometimes I look at all the things a company wants to do, process changes, re-engineering, efficiency programs. They are all good ideas, yet, most fail. Why?”

“Execution?” pondered Travis.

“So, why did the execution fail? I saw the written plans. I attended some of the meetings. I observed the training. I watched the pep rallies. I saw the teamwork posters on the wall. I know incredible amounts of money, resources and energy went in to make it happen. In the end, not much changed. So, what went wrong?”

Travis hesitated, “Execution?”

“I saw team members trying new sequences, working with new equipment, handing off projects in new ways. But in the end, it didn’t stick. A new process would get shortcut. The old way worked faster. The enthusiasm faded into push-back. The word on the floor was, if we stiff arm it long enough, the re-engineering would go away. Morale plummeted. Ultimately, the initiative was abandoned. What stopped the execution?”

Travis wasn’t sure.

“Management focused all of their attention prior to the change. Little or no thought was given to how the new behaviors would be positively reinforced. What gets reinforced gets repeated. What does not get reinforced will stop. Dead in its tracks.”

Happy Holidays

The year is winding down. I am tucked away in a snow bunker somewhere in Utah. Management Blog will return January 3, 2019, in its 15th year of publication. For now, a reprise of our Christmas Holiday greeting originally published December 2005.
As Matthew looked across the manufacturing floor, the machines stood silent, the shipping dock was clear. Outside, the service vans were neatly parked in a row. Though he was the solitary figure, Matthew shouted across the empty space.

“Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.”

He reached for the switch and the mercury vapors went dark. He slid out the door and locked it behind.