Why Organizational Climate Surveys May Do More Harm Than Good — Part 4: The Third Myth

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Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

The second myth regarding organizational climate surveys, shown in part three of this series, is that surveys provide a direction to pursue. Our third myth follows closely and regards where the motivation to make a change in direction comes from. Let’s see why surveys, rather than generating motivation, actually serve to do the opposite.

Myth Three: Survey Results Generate Motivation

False assumptions underlying the myth:

  • Competition and fear are the best motivators
  • Motivation is primarily environmentally determined
  • Motivation improves when management deals with problems expressed

Unintentional effects — what is more likely to result:

  • Taps into the lowest level of motivation, insufficiently recognizing the higher and more self-sustaining levels
  • People experience being manipulated and become more disenchanted with each new initiative.
  • People externalize problems and thereby reduce self-accountability

Levels of Motivation

Competition and fear can be a source of motivation, but they cannot be sustained without continual external reinforcement. When the fear or challenge goes away, the motivation tends to wane. A DuPont union leader offers this perspective: “I believe that people have different levels of motivation, such as self-preservation or satisfaction on up to the desire to make a contribution or a difference to something. I know it is true of me. Our company has had a tendency to keep people moving by giving the most grim data and competitive comparisons they could find. It would work for a while and then people settled back into their ordinary way of working, and usually with a lower motivation toward making that difference at work and frequently more focused toward their personal needs.”

Some businesses have however discovered a more complex set of motivations and are having incredible results by giving up this mode of “stimulation motivation”. Again, a DuPont Senior Vice President: “Development is the most fundamental way for people to become what they were born to be. And all of us were born to be something more but in our education process and upbringing processes, what we get to be is what others wanted us to be or whatever we could create space to be. Our motivation comes alive when we can bring out what is in each of us and add it to what needs to be created. That gives us the incentive to put ourselves into situations that require us to step across boundaries and into places in which we have to discover something we did not know was in us. We have worked to have capability developed in all of us in order to bring about a higher order of motivation, one that is sustained by the individual. Being thrown into the unknown without the capability is like being thrown into a swimming pool and hoping you can learn to swim.”

If you think about motivation in the way that was just described, it would be absurd to use surveys to ask people to tell the managers how we are doing or what we should change. It breaks the “motives-to-motivation” cycle. The motives are out there in the marketplace and society. The motivation is inside each individual. “Structure the organization to keep them linked and the business will prosper”, says a DuPont site manager. He should know. His facilities are always sold-out, sought as the preferred supplier. The people also brag that they look forward to coming to work. A good match.

Manipulation and Disenchantment

Are humans subject only to external manipulation or can they override environmental factors and be directed toward a purpose or aim? The environmental determination school on this question is very strong in the behavioral sciences. This influence has been increasingly pervasive as a result of the behaviorist promising to supply the “fundamental laws governing all human activity”, irrespective of the context, and the fundamental science of human affairs by which to ensure the control of people. With such a promise, this approach became the primary and in fact only school or philosophy of human psychological research in the United States until very recent years. While other nations proceeded with a broader look at human beings, American business was provided the singular philosophy of behavior modification that is even now being embedded in the newest generation of work design and improvement program design.

A DuPont perspective on this offers a different philosophy in regard to human motivation. “We blame teenagers for submitting to peer pressure, when we all do it to some degree. But the difference between rats they study to come up with their conclusions and us as human beings is we can also override that conditioning. The strength of our way of working is that we have lined up our motivation with what we want to be influenced by — our stakeholders’ effectiveness. When each individual has a clear contribution to make in regard to that, they can set aside other influences and chose what to respond to. It is what makes us uniquely human.” It is possible to design business structures and work systems that enable people to be purposeful, to choose the environmental factors to which they respond and to learn to manage so that one’s ego or one’s fears are not in the driver’s seat.

But to create purposeful individuals, the uniqueness of each individual must be valued and developed. Surveys are unable to nurture this by their nature. Generalizations that come out of surveys obliterate individual input. The obliteration of the individual in the race for efficiency, through team design, participation processes, and many high-performance programs, is epidemic in our country as is the resultant loss of will to care about the business of the organization. More and more people are cynical about their employers’ intentions.

In fact many surveys are now seen as weapons, since they are often used to rationalize the leadership’s behavior. This is easy to do since understanding about what was behind a particular response to the questions in the survey cannot be probed, at least in a way that produces deliberative thinking. Summary information does not create understanding, and generalized responses do not lead to personal connections to the responses.

Externalizes Problem and Opportunity Ownership

One side effect that is innate to the process of surveying and therefore to all surveys is the fostering of problems and opportunities being seen as belonging to someone else. “We only pose questions in a context in which people can take action to follow up on concerns and ideas they surface. We have done away with suggestion boxes in addition to surveys for the same reason. If someone else is to evaluate the priority or the course of action independent of the generator of the concern, you have implied it is ‘someone else’s problem’.”

The fostering of externalization of accountability for problems is increasingly a universal concern in businesses as well as societies. Some of managers in these companies represented here felt this has been heightened and intensified by all the organizational techniques in the last few years that have emerged in the name of increased participation. What these organizations are after is more self-directed accountability and less “other directed” accountability. “We used to have people who waited for others to tell them what to do. Even after our first try at involvement programs, only some people contributed ideas. What we want is every person feeling they own every problem and every person generating and carrying out improvements. We had to go beyond involvement to development of people to get to that.”

Self-Generated Motivation: Working from a Developmental Paradigm

  • Wholistic Understanding of the value adding process as foundation for initiation and creation, with accountability to be continuously regenerative thus transforming ego needs.
  • Generation through implementation phases in same hands and minds
  • Individual uniqueness developed and linked to self-accountable and differentiated contribution, which also transforms the ego needs.

In the next and final section of this series, we’ll see how a holistic understanding of an organization and its value adding process as a living system provides a stronger set of possibilities than surveys can.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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