Beneficial, Lasting Change Is a Holistic Process (Premise 6)
This chapter is an excerpt from No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work, the first in a series of books on toxic practices in the workplace. Read the introduction and previous chapter here on Medium, and find links to purchase the full book here.
The behavior of a part within a system is the result of the interconnected set of patterns of the whole system. Thus, the whole must be considered when one is working to change or correct any apparently independent part, including a person. For this reason, it is not effective to isolate an individual element (a person or a team) when attempting to change or improve a system. An example is isolating a person who appears to have a discipline problem and working to “fix” them without considering the systems relationships that need to be taken into consideration and developed at the same time.
Most companies have instituted a system called rating and ranking, which I will explore in depth in a later book in the Toxic Practices Series. I visit it briefly here because it has a strong connection to the toxicity of feedback, when feedback is used to improve or correct the behaviors of individuals in a system.
When we grade on a curve, which is what rating and ranking is, we assume that some people are likely to pull the entire system down and that it is important to identify and remove them. We also assume that a special few will lift the system to success. In this scheme, managers work to move their people upward on the curve by a variety of means. Each is assessed with an eye to the reasons they aren’t performing optimally and what they need to do to improve.
Renewed Strategic Direction at Orchard Supply
Lowe’s Hardware and Home Improvement, and Sears before them, had immersed their Orchard Supply Neighborhood Stores in both systems, feedback coupled with ranking and rating. When I started work with them, one recently promoted operations manager, Matthew, was busy identifying people who had been at the bottom of the scale for some time and were expected to remain there unless something changed. He set out to provide clear feedback to each, document behaviors which did not match the core competencies of the organization, and provide intense training, coaching, or confrontation sessions — based on what each person appeared to need.
Matthew proudly pointed out that his approach was customized, not one of the generic ones he had heard me caution against. To this he added, “Dead wood can cause fires,” and I later learned that this was his mantra. He meant that people who were “not on the upper curve” undermined others, and thus they also undermined the organization’s ability to get a big boost in the retail space of a particularly tough industry. Orchard really needed a radical differentiation to become the place to shop, or it would die along with other industry competitors who were declining.
I introduced the idea that Orchard’s work system itself — its work design and how it organized people, what the business was focused on and how it was measuring performance — might be the primary source of the negative outcomes they were getting, not the individual workers. Matthew’s jaw dropped. He frowned and said, “You mean we should mollycoddle them?” This was a phrase I had not heard for years, but I got the image quickly.
“No,” I said, “we stop blaming them and trying to fix them one by one. We work on creating conditions in which each individual not only succeeds, but becomes a source of innovation for the business. Then, you’ll see people at the bottom of the curve change radically and profoundly.”
I went on to suggest that Matthew and his fellow managers stop blaming individuals and instead blame the principles, practices, structures, and processes that the executive leadership and human resource function had used to organize this business. These were undermining people’s ability to experience personal realization in their jobs, and this was true for almost all of the people at the bottom of the curve. They were also structured to ensure that a few individuals would thrive. But a company needs all of its people, and you can’t just hire and fire until your get the teams you need. You have to develop everyone, top to bottom, and create a developmental infrastructure that will work for each and all. This is the fastest, surest way to change things in any business for the best. And it includes getting rid of all toxic practices, including feedback, core competencies, and rating and ranking, among the dozens of others.
For example, Oscar, one of the employees on Matthew’s hit list, had been with Orchard for more than fifteen years and was promoted by previous management to the position of lead salesperson. Most of the current leadership team agreed that he no longer met the core competencies required by the job. (It is amazing how different leadership and goals can cause a person be seen so differently!) The reason offered was that he talked to customers for too long at a time, produced too few sales from each interaction, and had too low a check-out rate from conversations. The system measured him based on a Proudfoot model of what the average time per customer should be and a set of metrics that defined the optimum time for interactions with customers and a monthly sales goal.
At this time, Lara Lee was president of Orchard, and the business was involved in a change process. Lara had been core to the leaders team that had turned Harley-Davidson around a few years earlier. The principles guiding the Harley’s change had relocated the measures for success to customers, both their interactions with salespeople and their experiences with products. We carried that idea a bit further. We wanted Orchard’s prominent measures to be based not only on customers’ experiences of services and products, but also on the impacts made on their lives every time they talked with Orchard’s people. The goal was to make these impacts 100 percent beneficial — to improve customers’ lives with every interaction.
And it worked. Orchard customers came to count its salespeople, and the store team, as their life design team. Sometimes sales would be, one quick stop at the store, but many times customers returned to consult with salespeople whom they saw as helpful neighbors with insight into what had the potential to make life better. This became the business’s new strategic direction.
The idea was that if a salesperson or store team came to understand a customer’s life and their particular way of engaging in the world and making purchases, then they could make genuinely useful suggestion. These ideas, ones that the customer had not thought of before, would create a bigger market basket sale, which might occur over a series of visits. Developing salespersons to be dedicated, insightful neighbors, with time to spend on customer interactions, was the way to build long-term, friendly customers who would turn to Orchard for more and more life improvements.
This idea, unique in the industry, had been Orchard’s founding inspiration. As such, it was its core essence. When it was re-identified, the sales process evolved from quick turnaround transaction to ongoing series of interactions to fill customers’ needs and make their lives better, represented by the metaphor of neighborly, over-the-backyard-hedge conversations between neighbors.
When this strategy was embedded within the workforce, Oscar’s unique capabilities began to shine. He was a natural at looking deeply into people’s lives and inventing ideas for them that were thrilling and fulfilling. Customers came in to talk with him more and more often. And this time spent with customers was not the metric his work was measured by. His sales soared, and he became a great lead salesperson, setting the tone and demonstrating the rightness of the business’s strategic direction.
More importantly, as the new work design unfolded, Oscar took on a resource role in relationship with others who were learning to be good neighbors. People reported really liking their customers and genuinely valuing them as neighbors. Without too much pressure, Matthew, the young manager, admitted that he, too, liked supporting people this way. The new design for ways all of the business’s people could contribute, the ways they organized their work, and the roles they took on were the key. Matthew struggled, but it felt right to him. He realized that the nature of feedback was causing people to be written off. He also saw that if these same people were not required to meet the generic standards of behavior, their unique ways of working could be core to Orchard’s future. This was the biggest shock resulting from the change initiative, not only for Matthew, but for all of Orchard’s managers and executives.
What Is the Theory that Explains How This Worked?
Cybernetics theorists discovered that even working with artificial intelligence they had to give up the notion of linear cause-and-effect, which posits that one action directly causes one effect. In the non-mechanical world of human life, the cause of any effect is many (often uncountable) interacting elements occurring simultaneously. To change an ongoing effect, most or all of the predominant causes must be engaged in an interactive way.
Thus, when we attempt to work with purely linear cause-and-effect in the human interactive world, we are using a model of science that has been proven to be vastly incomplete. To change any single element of a system, we have to consider the dynamics of the whole and work in holistic ways. This view enables us to design change from an integrated perspective, but at the same time, it requires that we let go of the security of programs that focus on specific functions, classes of people, and classes of problems. Isolated measures, such as fixing individuals with behavior problems, must give way to whole-systems measures, which track the overall progress of the system without specifying a particular cause. With any other approach, we invite individuals, systems, and functions into runaway, with the risk of sub-optimizing the whole.
One of the best ways to look at what appears to be a problem person or set of problem behaviors is as an early warning that broad changes are required in the overall system. The working of the organization as a whole is producing problems, and current leadership processes are keeping them in place. Organizations that work developmentally have found that some individuals are more susceptible to dysfunctional organizational systems and processes than others, perhaps because they or their families are more openly expressive. But regardless of susceptibility, if instead of punishing such persons or seeking to get them back on track, we bring them into developmental processes — and redesign work processes, systems and structures to foster development — then we invite and evoke changes that prevent escalating problems. This starts with assessing where in the system changes are needed and giving people ways to develop understanding of how they can work differently and contribute in ways that are deeply meaningful to themselves and others.
Sometimes part of the system breakdown that needs addressing is at home. As most businesses know, an employee’s home life will inevitably affect their work. It takes a very different kind of behavioral evaluation to extend beneficial change beyond the immediate work environment into an individual’s whole life, one that views people as active living organisms. This approach understands that any individual is continuously attempting to develop and contribute their potential. If they have become a problem, it is only because they do not have the capability or the opportunity to engage in a developmental process, and as a result, have gone into mental runaway and are unable to stop worrying about how they are failing or letting people down. This is especially likely in instances when the larger system that they are part of is itself blocking such opportunities.
An Example of Personal Development at Kingsford Charcoal
When I worked with Kingsford Charcoal, I met a young woman, Maria, a single mom with three children who was tardy several times a week. Most businesses would have docked her pay, written her up, and eventually fired her. But her base team asked the people development resource team to help them think about how to proceed differently. The resource team asked if the problem might be one of language difficulty. Was English her second language? Her base team confirmed that this might be the case. But the problem wasn’t speaking and understanding spoken English; it was really more about Maria’s challenge to read and write in English.
Three people who were close to Maria met with her and made some startling discoveries. After assuring Maria that she would not be fired, that they wanted to make Kingsford a good place for her to work, she admitted that she was illiterate. Because her job required very little reading, she had been really successful when she was on shift. But the number of “computer only” memos, training, and instruction was increasing. Also, her children were having trouble at school with reading and writing English, although like Maria, they were fluent in conversation. The team had uncovered the actual, underlying problem.
Maria informed them that she was not the only one facing this challenge. When the team enlisted her to help them set up a literacy program, they discovered that, on average across the company, the illiteracy rate was 10 percent. At one facility, 50 percent of employees could not read and write. Many clever compensating measures had kept this fact hidden, but Maria’s family challenges had kept her out of the circles that teams had formed to help one another. Also, all of these employees’ children were struggling with reading and writing, and there was no way for them to compensate at school. They were failing, and this was creating a whole new generation of very smart, creative, illiterate people who would need to learn ways to compensate in order to survive in the world.
At Maria’s facility, the team set out to remedy a national, systemic problem. They hired a part time teacher, rented a trailer for use as an on-site classroom, and invited all employees and their families to take classes. Maria became the resource to this process, confronting and cajoling her co-workers until they agreed that they needed help, sometimes pulling them kicking and screaming into the school.
Using standard tests to gauge progress, the State of Kentucky Public School Department determined that the program was succeeding. Toyota USA, an employer in Kentucky, honored Kingsford for their effort, and in addition became a funder for this school and schools at several other area companies where the same hidden challenge had been revealed. Over the years, the program won several awards. In the end, 92 percent of Kingsford’s workers and all workers’ children learned to read and write and passed the state test for functional literacy.
If Kingsford had followed the usual path and assumed that Maria was the problem, given her feedback, or punished her into correcting her tardiness, the problem of illiteracy might have stayed hidden and been passed on for many more generations. The developmental path that they chose instead changed the course of Maria’s life, and ultimately changed that of Kingsford and entire communities in Kentucky and other Kingsford regions. This was a pretty impressive result for a team working on a problem that in most other organizations would simply have gotten someone fired.
This has been an excerpt from No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work. To read the rest of the book, find links to purchase a copy here.