All aboard the metrics-go-round! Ready, managers? Here’s how it works:
- You set goals and create measurements (“metrics”) for your people’s behavior. Of course you tie their pay, performance evaluations; indeed their continued employment to hitting your numbers. Of course!
- Some of your people dive into hitting these goals with gusto. Some figure out the metrics and decide it’s easier to manipulate them than it is to do the work you want, so they play the system you’ve created to measure their behavior. Cheeky workers!
- The compliant ones look at all the praise, bonus pay, and promotions their “cheating” coworkers are getting and they feel envy. Plus, they start to fear for their jobs, because the cheaters have inspired you to raise everyone’s performance expectations.
- Now many people are cheating. A few have quit in disgust, or transferred into business units that are less metrics-driven. A minority is working its collective tail off to hit your numbers. They find their jobs too hard, and learn to hate your company, or at least your business unit. The last slice of “ethical” workers, who can’t hit these lofty goals and who refuse to cheat, are now in danger of losing their jobs – or at best, they’re missing out on all the recognition. Strangely, this group comes to hate your company, too. (People are so weird!)
- So here you are, with most of your staff playing the system instead of doing what you wanted them to. The gall! So you work up all sorts of creative ways to monitor their behavior more assiduously. You also offer them an ethics course, because clearly their parents screwed up.
- That works a little, but your workers sure are shifty, and in no time they’ve figured these new controls out, too. So you scrap those metrics, and introduce a whole new set of behaviors you want them to perform and metrics by which you’ll measure them.
- …And we’re off, riding the Metrics-go-round again! (Return to #1 and start reading).
Where do all these crappy, unethical employees come from? Maybe, in addition to your mandatory (of course!) annual two-hour ethics class, you should change the metrics of your recruiters, so they’ll recruit more ethical employees. Or hell, maybe workers just suck, as a class. You can’t trust people to do what’s right, can you?
Does any of this sound familiar? Does all of this sound like exactly what your role as a manager consists of?
I’ve been observing leaders and organizations for a long time now, and this is what I’ve found: leaders basically fall into one of two groups, what MIT Sloan fellow Douglas McGregor called Theory X and Theory Y in his book The Human Side of Enterprise, published in 1960.
In the first group (Theory X) are those leaders who swear by metrics and swear at their unreliable, childish workers who need to be controlled.
The second group (Theory Y) consists of leaders who hire mature, responsible adults and treat them as such. These leaders don’t really think much of metrics. They’re more interested in buy-in and results.
McGregor’s book is 350 pages long. Let me save you a bit of reading. Some managers – and their organizational culture – don’t trust workers. Some do trust their workers.
Which kind of a leader are you?
A previous version of this post appeared on Ted’s old blog.