Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 22;   June 3, 2009: One Cost of Split Assignments

One Cost of Split Assignments

by

Sometimes management practices have unintended consequences. To reduce costs, we keep staff ranks thin, but that leads to split assignments for those with rare skills. Here's one way split assignments can lead to higher costs.
Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, and Oscar Wisting at the South Pole

Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, and Oscar Wisting at the South Pole, December 16, 1911. The photographer was Olav Bjaaland. Amundsen had selected the members of his polar party to ensure that he had at least double coverage of most necessary skills. Each man had designated duties, but there was for each at least one man backing him up in case the man with primary responsibility should become incapacitated. Most teams in problem-solving organizations have only single coverage for critical skills, which Amundsen would have found appalling. Photo courtesy Norwegian-U.S. Scientific Traverse of East Antarctica.

One widely used model of human motivation is Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which orders human needs from lowest to highest as survival, security, belonging, and love, self-esteem, and finally self-actualization. According to the model, we focus our attention on the lowest-level unmet need. For instance, fears about safety prevail over any concerns about belonging to the right health club.

In problem-solving organizations, the lowest level needs that come into play are the social needs, including belonging. At home, belonging means a loving family, friends, and a social network. At work, belonging means friendship, respect, and acknowledgment. Belonging is fundamental to self-esteem, and hence to high performance and self-actualization.

When policies, decisions, assignments, and evaluations threaten people's sense of belonging, we threaten their self-esteem and depress performance.

After we remove someone's sense of belonging, high performance is not possible for long. In effect, when we hold out belonging — friendship, respect, acknowledgement, and inclusion — as a reward for performance, we cause an inversion in the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. It's a Catch-22: for humans, belonging is a prerequisite for high performance, but in many workplaces, belonging must be earned by first demonstrating high performance.

When we invert the order of Maslow's hierarchy, we risk a variety of troubles. For example, when we devise team assignments, we tend to focus on team needs and member capabilities. We assign some people with rare capabilities to multiple teams, switching them from team to team as the work requires. Often, the unintended message to those who remain assigned to a single team is that those with rare capability are more valued — they belong not to the team, but to an elite group.

Those who stay put can thus actually feel excluded from the elite. Their need to belong is unmet, which can erode self-esteem, and that affects their performance. Ironically, by using split assignments to optimize team performance, we erode the performance of those whose assignments are not split.

In this way, When we invert the order
of Maslow's hierarchy,
we risk a variety
of troubles
split assignments foster elitism and exclusion. Although the performance of the few might be high, the performance of the many can decline.

Making rare capability less rare is a far better choice. By having the experts train the less expert:

  • We reduce the need for split assignments.
  • We eliminate bottlenecks because more people can carry out a wider array of responsibilities.
  • We build stronger relationships between the most expert and the least expert.
  • We mitigate the risks of losing rare expertise to voluntary termination, illness, or accident.

More important, developing expertise limits the perception of elitism and exclusion, enhancing everyone's sense of belonging and self-esteem. The entire organization becomes more capable and productive. Enhanced performance might even enable headcount reduction — a much more sensible path to cost control. Go to top Top  Next issue: Long-Loop Conversations: Asking Questions  Next Issue

For an examination of the effect of Maslow Hierarchy inversions in the educational system, see The Need to Belong: Rediscovering Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs by Norman Kunc in: Villa, R., Thousand, J., Stainback, W. & Stainback, S. Restructuring for Caring & Effective Education. Baltimore: Paul Brookes, 1992.

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenPIzGDHfvYiyEvKWhner@ChaclxPLGoQPVZkLgrUZoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Out of the actionThe Shape of the Table
Not only was the meeting running over, but it now seemed that the entire far end of the table was having its own meeting. Why are some meetings like this?
StonehengeHigh Falutin' Goofy Talk
Business speech and business writing are sometimes little more than high falutin' goofy talk, filled with pretentious, overused images and puff phrases of unknown meaning. Here are some phrases that are so common that we barely notice them.
Dr. Jerri Nielsen at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in 1999On Virtual Relationships
Whether or not you work as part of a virtual team, you probably work with some people you rarely meet face-to-face. And there are some people you've never met, and probably never will. What does it take to maintain good working relationships with people you rarely meet?
The bark of the American SycamoreMitigating Outsourcing Risks: II
Outsourcing internal processes exposes the organization to a special class of risks that are peculiar to the outsourcing relationship. Here is Part II of a discussion of what some of those risks are and what can we do about them.
Still Life with Chair-Caning, by PicassoSolutions as Found Art
Examining the most innovative solutions we've developed for difficult problems, we often find that they aren't purely new. Many contain pieces of familiar ideas and techniques combined together in new ways. Accepting this as a starting point can change our approach to problem solving.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A voltmeter with a needleComing January 17: High Falutin' Goofy Talk: II
Speech and writing at work are sometimes little more than high falutin' goofy talk, filled with puff phrases of unknown meaning and pretentious, tired images. Here's Part II of a collection of phrases and images to avoid. Available here and by RSS on January 17.
Passing the baton in a relay raceAnd on January 24: Understanding Delegation
It's widely believed that managers delegate some of their own authority and responsibility to their subordinates, who then use that authority and responsibility to get their work done. That view is unfortunate. It breeds micromanagers. Available here and by RSS on January 24.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenskbKTkvvJYhaxQWtner@ChacGJvUbEKJnsCbqzwGoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.