In the past, we humans identified the causes of unexplained events as goblins or invisible agents. As science began to limit this behavior, we began wrapping our goblins in pseudo-scientific dress.
Occasionally, some of these explanations "stick," probably because they're memorable; or they appear to have predictive value; or they're simple to explain to the uninitiated, which elevates their propagation rates; or they have value in consolidating power, which gives them the blessing of the powerful. These explanations then become the organizational form of urban legends.
Understanding which of our beliefs could be mythological gives us a decided advantage as an organization. Here are some examples of pseudo-scientific workplace myths that claim to explain how to motivate people.
- As a new manager, fire a few people to send the right message
- Some believe that the best way to show their new subordinates that they mean business is to fire a few of them, and it doesn't really matter who. Calling it anything from "cleaning house" to "reorganization," the result is the same: some people lose their jobs.
- This tactic has an unintended consequence: nearly everyone begins to feel insecure. The risk is that those who have alternatives might take advantage of them — and leave. And those with alternatives are usually the most capable people. What you get is turnover of precisely the wrong kind.
- Pay-for-performance is the answer to all our problems
- While fear might have motivated
the galley slaves of the film
Ben-Hur, there's some doubt
about whether it makes
people more creative
- In its purest form, this myth holds that pay-for-performance is an effective way to manage everyone in the organization, no matter what their duties.
- Pay-for-performance policies have numerous flaws, but here's just one. Such policies assume that performance goal setting is an objective process that yields sensible results. While this may be practical for certain easily measured functions such as sales, it's difficult to imagine a practical way to implement goal setting for R&D or strategic planning. How can we tell how good an innovation is, or how good a strategy is? Those determinations take time — sometimes decades.
- The Strategy of the Whip
- The strategy of the whip holds that we can increase performance by browbeating our subordinates, or threatening them with dismissal, corporate failure, or other punitive measures.
- This approach is essentially fear-based, and it assumes that fear is a universally helpful motivator. While this might work for the galley slaves of the film Ben-Hur there is at least some doubt that fear makes people more creative or insightful. On the contrary, effective fear-generating policies might make people and teams less creative and less insightful.
Learning to recognize workplace myths is a little like learning to recognize any other scam. Usually, they're too good to be true. More important, they tend to support the agenda of the social stratum that believes and propagates them. Be attentive to business wisdom where you work. Do you notice any possible myths? Top Next Issue
For more on achieving and inspiring goals, see "Corrales Mentales," Point Lookout for July 4, 2001; "Commitment Makes It Easier," Point Lookout for October 16, 2002; "Beyond WIIFM," Point Lookout for August 13, 2003; "Your Wishing Wand," Point Lookout for October 8, 2003; "Give It Your All," Point Lookout for May 19, 2004; "Knowing Where You're Going," Point Lookout for April 20, 2005; "Astonishing Successes," Point Lookout for January 31, 2007; and "Achieving Goals: Inspiring Passion and Action," Point Lookout for February 14, 2007.
- Mark Iocolano, Mark Iocolano & Associates, Inc.
- Your article reminded me of an experience of a few years ago, in which I encountered a combination of the "fire/fear" motivators. A fellow manager in my organization cited a technique that he said was inspired by Jack Welch: routinely fire the bottom (10th or 20th?) percentile of performers.
- Rick: This scheme (often called "rank and yank") has been used at Enron and is still (I believe) advocated by many leading consultants.
- This was the first I had heard of it and it struck me as insanity.
- Rick: Good for you!
- (First of all, our organization consisted of only 16 people at its peak, all in different functions, from sales to consulting to secretarial). I suppose in some circumstances, this technique could work,
- Rick: Not really. Even if the population is large, its main effect is to motivate the politically ruthless.
- But it suffers from these flaws:
- 1. It assumes that performance of the people in the bottom percentile is unsatisfactory.
- What if you happen to have an organization of people who are performing well? If you say that that's statistically and practically impossible, then what do you hope to gain by implementing this practice? Do you think you can achieve perfection, or that there is no limit to improvement — you can get consistent 10 or 20 percent increases in improvement by relentlessly firing people? If you have good people to start with, aren't they the ones who are most likely to get even better if you provide the right climate?
- Rick: I think the issue is "How do we enhance organizational performance?" The rank-and-yankers want to do it by casting out the "sludge." You and I would probably agree that a more effective method might be to create conditions that enable the organization to improve overall performance. Rank-and-yankers are also assuming that performance resides purely in the individual, and that to change the performance of the group, you have to change who is in the group. Balderdash.
- 2. It assumes that you can quickly find superior replacements to those who were fired. (Unless your goal is workforce reduction).
- Rick: Right
- 3. As you mention, unless you have clearly measurable and unambiguous standards of performance (and short-term, possibly shortsighted ones at that), how do you know which people are at the bottom? It seems to me that this practice, routinely applied, would rapidly lead to blame-shifting and risk-aversion. Disastrous particularly if team-building is important to your organization.
- 4. It creates a persistent climate of fear. It reminds me of decimation,
- Rick: So true. It zeroes out risk taking and creates a motive for lying and misrepresentation.
- practiced by the Roman legions and, I've heard, also by at least one latter-day Italian general in the First World War: After you lose a battle, line up your remaining army and kill every tenth soldier. This is just another one of those rules of thumb you cite that seems tough and effective at first glance but is usually just a myth. Thanks for another fine article.
- -- Mark
- Rick: You're welcome!
Love the work but not the job? Bad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? This ebook looks at what we can do to get more out of life at work. It helps you get moving again! Read Go For It! Sometimes It's Easier If You Run, filled with tips and techniques for putting zing into your work life. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmLjrlIrRPfaVJqOvner@ChacrZqvZqhqyvYiObRaoCanyon.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.
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.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Please Remove My Appendix
- When an organization is experiencing problems with conflict, "pushback," or "blowback,"
managers often hire trainers to present programs on helpful topics. But self-diagnosis can be risky.
Often, there are more direct and focused options that can help more and cost less.
- Inner Babble
- It goes by various names — self-talk, inner dialog, or internal conversation. Because it is so
often disorganized and illogical, I like to call it inner babble. But whatever you call it, it's
often misleading, distracting, and unhelpful. How can you recognize inner babble?
- Annoyance to Asset
- Unsolicited contributions to the work of one element of a large organization, by people from another,
are often annoying to the recipients. Sometimes the contributors then feel rebuffed, insulted, or frustrated.
Toxic conflict can follow. We probably can't halt the flow of contributions, but we can convert it from
a liability to a valuable asset.
- Decisions: How Looping Back Helps
- Group decision-making often proceeds through a series of steps including forming a list of options,
researching them, ranking them, reducing them, and finally selecting one. Often, this linear approach
yields disappointing results. Why?
- How to Waste Time in Virtual Meetings
- Nearly everyone hates meetings, and virtual meetings are at the top of most people's lists. Here's a
catalog of some of the worst practices.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
- When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
- And on December 27: On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
- When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others. Available here and by RSS on December 27.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenwGdPocsvXpZJOHGpner@ChacTMNBnQEZDXPxrJUAoCanyon.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:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, USD 28.99)
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
- Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
- When we 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
- Embassy Suites by Hilton Jacksonville Baymeadows, 9300 Baymeadows
Road, Jacksonville, Florida, 32256, USA: January 15, 2018,
Monthly Meeting, Northeast Florida Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- Embassy Suites by Hilton Jacksonville Baymeadows, 9300 Baymeadows Road, Jacksonville, Florida, 32256, USA: January 15, 2018, Monthly Meeting, Northeast Florida Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
- Most of 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 people 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.