Making Your Environment Work for You

Deepak ChopraAt the moment I’m trying to lose a bit of weight. Lots of people ask how difficult I’m finding it, but the truth is it doesn’t feel too hard. The reason, aside from my very supportive girlfriend (which is a big reason!), is that we’ve changed things at home to make it easy. We’ve got rid of all the unhealthy food, got me comfortable trainers and clothing, used a fitness app and tracker to make sure I’ve got an accurate impression of what I’m doing and eating and made sure we pick up nice ingredients for our healthy recipes. I also make sure I take lunch to work to further reduce any temptation. In combination, it’s actually more effort for me to be unhealthy than healthy.

Surprisingly, to me, some people seem to think making things so easy is a from of cheating – the thought process seems to go something like “if you really wanted to lose weight then you should be able to do it anyway”.

That kind of thinking is fairly endemic, at least in British culture (I’d be interested in thoughts on other cultures). It seems that our belief in the “stiff upper lip” means that we think we should just get on with things and that making something easier is the “wimps” way out. You can see this across a range of areas, including public understanding of mental health, sporting performance and in the workplace.

Evidence shows, however, that changing our environment can enable us to achieve more. We all only have a limited amount of willpower and we can change our environment so that we focus that willpower where we really need it.

Outside the Workplace

Having these in sight appears to help you lose weight

Under manufactured, experimental conditions, environmental cues can have a quite drastic effect on our ability to achieve what we want. To stick with dieting for a second, Mann and Ward – research which I also quoted here – set up rooms with cues that either promoted eating (e.g. lots of delicious food around the room) or encouraged restraint (e.g. scales and a diet book) and put dieters in a room with a high fat milkshake. They were told it was a taste test and should drink as much or as little as they like. To ramp up the effect, some of the dieters were made to remember a 9-digit number; a cognitively challenging task.

Under those conditions dieters with “eating” cues drank twice as much milkshake as those with “diet” cues. They found similar results with those trying to quit smoking (although when not doing a cognitively challenging task, smokers revolted against “stop smoking” cues and smoked more – this replicated other results and is a really interesting finding for health advertising). And the only difference was the behavioural cue.

That was, however, a pretty artificial situation. Gittelsohn, Rowan and Gadhoke moved this into a real-world environment; small food stores. By advertising healthy foods, promoting health messages and increasing the availability of healthy produce, a range of stores found that people bought healthier produce, sales increased (between 25 and 50%, while the only store that looked at the effect over time found that this was a sustained effect 6 months after the promotion ended) and increased health and food-related knowledge.

IAT Example
A computerised IAT example

There’s lots of evidence in lots of different fields, so I’ll keep it relatively brief, but one of the most striking is racial bias. Lowery, Hardin and Sinclair used the implicit association test (IAT) to test racial bias. The IAT asks people to pair up Black or White names with positive or negative words and tests the time it takes people to do this. A pro-White/anti-Black attitude is indicated by the degree to which a) Black names are more efficiently paired with negative than positive words and b) White names are more efficiently paired with positive than negative words. A pro-Black/anti-White attitude is reflected by the opposite. The IAT can reflect attitudes that people aren’t consciously aware they hold, revealing our subconscious beliefs.

In order to test the impact of cues on racial bias, participants sat the test in the presence of either a black or a white experimenter. This had a significant impact – people showed more automatic anti-Black prejudice with a white experimenter than with a black experimenter. The presence of a black experimenter didn’t reduce the speed of matching negative words with Black names, but did significantly increase the pairing of positive words with them. At a subconscious level people related the role of an experimenter with positive traits, and the race of the experimenter caused people to link the positive traits to the race in general.

Cues, which participants weren’t even consciously aware were influencing them, managed to change their subconscious biases and their actions. And yet Kim found that people couldn’t fake the results of the IAT even when trying to do so. Conscious attempts to change performance actually had much less of an effect than environmental cues.

It’s clear that your environment can have a big impact on you, whether you’re conscious of it or not.

In the Workplace

There are clearly lots of non-physical elements to productivity at work, but here I’ll carry on the theme of focusing on the physical. I’ve covered some (to give one example) of those mental and social elements in the past and I’ll cover more in the future, but for now let’s stick with the work space itself.

There are the obvious “hygiene factors” – the workplace being the right temperature, having working equipment, professional behaviour by fellow employees etc. – but I’m looking to go beyond that to things that raise performance beyond average.

Kompier and Cooper found that, in Europe at least, the literature suggested that changes aimed at the general work environment were the least common of the 4 types of stress prevention interventions taken by organisations and that obtaining good analysis of the efficacy of these environmental interventions was a real struggle. So there’s not exactly a wealth of evidence.

That’s partly why I chose this topic. There must be more we can do to make ourselves (and our organisations) more productive and it feels like a relatively undiscovered field, despite the many weird and wonderful workplaces.

Erma BombeckAnyway, on to the information we do have. Two studies looked at the relationship between plants being present in an office and productivity. The first of these, by Lohr, Pearson-Mims and Goodwin (worth being aware that the study was from the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture) found that in a windowless environment, for a one-off task, the presence of plants improved reaction time by 12% (the proxy for performance), reduced stress (including lower blood pressure) and made people feel more attentive. The second, by Larsen, Adams and Deal, found that plants made people feel happier, like the office space more and feel more productive. However, they also found that their participants were actually slower with plants than without – despite what they perceived. Nothing conclusive then.

There is, however, a lot of discussion about the pros and cons of open-plan offices. Those that look at the transition from a room-based office to open-plan tend to show a negative response from employees and reveal that this negativity can last over 6 months. Studies looking more generally at open plan offices have found a number of downsides, ranging from Canada Life’s finding that it can negatively affect health to Steelcase’s finding that it can significantly reduce productivity, primarily due to distractions. Now it’s true that open-plan offices aren’t just about individual productivity – they’re about being cheaper to run, easier to fit more people in, flexible enough to expand and contract to employee numbers quickly and looking busier/better than any other option – but some people also argue that it’s about collaboration.

Haynes found that this collaboration vs distraction conundrum was at the core of how people viewed the workplace. Collaboration was the feature perceived to increase productivity most, while distraction was seen to be the most productivity suppressing feature and different people viewed the same workplace as those two things. We’re again encountering one of the recurring themes of this blog – people are different and tasks are different. The environment that works best for me might not work best for you and the environment that suits me when doing creative work might not suit me for doing number crunching.

Innocent Office
The Innocent approach won’t work everywhere

The most important thing is to design the workplace to suit your staff and your purpose rather than trying to be like someone else. Google-style offices are very en vogue at the moment because they’re different, but they only work where they fit your work and your workforce. As a very simple example, younger people expect more flexibility in how they work than older employees – although that’s riskily close to one of those simple stereotypes.

Finally, it’s worth noting some findings by Black and Lynch. Their research found that specific work practices made much less difference to productivity than how any change in working practice was implemented. We should be working with our employees when considering workplace changes, so that we tailor to the workforce, fit with our purpose and then implement those changes as soon as possible. There’s no silver bullet, but by exploring options and studying how those options suit you, it’s possible to deliver radical change to your performance.

Some Practical Tips

Despite the above, I feel like it’d be unfair of me to have you read this far and give you no practical help, so here are just a couple of my favourite workplace environment strategies:

  • Step away from your email – we’re all addicted to email at work and we feel the need to look immediately whenever something new pops into the inbox. That means we’re constantly flicking through different tasks, never focusing enough to do any of them justice. The truth is that emails almost always aren’t urgent and if they are then someone will call you if you haven’t replied urgently. We should only be checking emails sporadically; let’s say one flick through of 10 minutes every hour. The rest of the time we should be forgetting about it. Shut down the email service you’re using, print stuff out and move somewhere else or use a website blocker to stop you being in your email all the time – whatever works.
  • Give yourself visible reminders of what you want – It may seem a bit cheesy, but it’s worth producing notes that emphasise what it is that you want to achieve. Written notes are better than online ones too; they simply have a bigger impact. It’s easy to get drowned in the every day and forget about progress.
  • Try working in different places – Test places out with different kind of work. A coffee shop might be great for writing (stereotype alert), but bad for working up a spreadsheet. A park might work for something, a library, your home, work etc will all better and worse with different tasks for different people. The only way you’ll know what works for you is having a go.

If you have any thoughts on how we can make the most of the workplace then please pass them on – I’m only trying to give a taster with those bullets, so feel free to build on them.

Thanks for reading,

The Pareto Principle – What (or Who) is Worth the Effort?

As promised, this week’s is just a short one. It’s also more conceptual and less scientific, so a little lighter on experimental research (maybe I’m taking something from this post) – it’s a look at the Pareto Principle and how we can use it to be more efficient.

Vilfredo ParetoThe Pareto principle is named after Vilfredo Pareto, an economist who showed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. It turned out that this wasn’t the only thing that followed the 80:20 pattern; a wide range of phenomena showed that around 80% of the effects were related to approximately 20% of the causes (including, so the story goes, that 80% of peas came from 20% of pods).

Given how widespread this distribution seemed to be, Joseph Juran, a management consultant, proposed that this was a generalizable concept. He saw a huge number of possible applications for the principle – and it’s come to be known by a number of names, including the 80-20 rule, the law of the critical few and the principle of factor sparsity (because there are a limited number of factors that have a substantial effect on the outcome).

In reality, it’s unlikely that the ratio will be exactly 80-20. For example, the UNU-WIDER 2008 report on global inequality showed that (based on 2000 data), globally, the wealthiest 10% owned 85.2% of the wealth. The general principle, however, holds – the critical few things, people, events etc. can deliver the majority of your results, cost you the majority of your time and/or determine your success.

Wealth in the US
Wealth distribution in the US – the reality, what Americans think it is and what they’d like

In the 4-hour Workweek, one of the big steps Timothy Ferriss took to reduce his working week was follow the Pareto principle. His sport nutrition firm, BrainQUICKEN, regularly served about 120 customers and Ferriss was working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week.

He had enough, so decided to analyse what he was getting from his customers. He found 5 of those customers accounted for 95% of the firm’s revenues, so he honed in on that part of his business – quartering his hours while doubling his revenues.

But he didn’t save all that time just be focusing on the “good” customers; he also identified and then stopped serving the “bad” customers. They delivered very little revenue, but took up a lot of time in unnecessary (from Ferriss’ perspective) contact and required lots of “urgent” attention.

brainquickenTo me, that was where Ferriss stepped off the well-trodden path. Most small or growing businesses become so desperate for customers that they’ll take on any client. They think that it’s a failure to be unable to deliver what every customer wants, but, as BrainQUICKEN showed, there are some customers it’s just not worth having.

The Pareto principle is often spoken about, as I’ve done above, in relation to businesses (partly because there’s more funding for research on this and partly because there are genuinely loads of applications, e.g. it’s also relevant to a workforce – your top 20% need to be looked after and your low delivery, resource intensive 20% moved on) and external/global factors (like distribution of wealth). I think it’s even more important to us as individuals – and not just in relation to work.

We spend huge amounts of time on tasks that don’t add much value to us (where I’m defining value as anything that we desire – happiness, wealth, power, love etc). We do this in a couple of ways: 1) we do things that deliver very little benefit; and 2) we speQuote on Prioritisationnd too much time/effort/money on doing things that are worthwhile, but the marginal gain of spending that extra resource is negligible. I can’t cover all the reasons people do that here, given there are hundreds of textbooks on that, but it’s fair to say we’d be better off if we did less of it.

By looking at the things we do through the lens of the value those actions deliver, we can start to work out which actions deliver our 80% of positive outcomes and which actions take up our 80% of effort. This allows us to become more and more efficient – whatever you want to achieve.

Reaching “Final Placement” – The Peter Principle and Promotion

In 1969, Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull recite-1d0uoeywrote the satirical management book “The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong“, and, its key principle is only becoming more relevant. That overarching concept is “every employee tends to rise to his own level of incompetence” – i.e. we each get promoted until we’re no longer good at our job and then we get stuck in that role forever more. This leads not only to organisational ineffectiveness, but also employee unhappiness and anxiety. There are multiple plausible explanations for this and, helpfully, some research which explores the reality of the Peter Principle.

The Peter Principle

The greatness of Peter and Hull’s book was the balance between genuine insight and off the wall comedy. The theories within it were both intuitive and hugely readable. My training, however, is as a skeptical scientist, so I wanted to find a bit of evidence to support it.

In theoretical terms, there are a number of models, from Faria (2000) to Lezear (2001). Pluchino, Rapisarda and Garafalo (2009) even ran an agent based simulation that showed that promoting people at random was better than promotinstockvault-teacher-and-formulas147814g the best current performers – though it’s worth noting they won an Ig Nobel award (it did assume that: 1) you promote the most competent from their current roles; and 2) that performance in current role doesn’t predict performance in the job above). These only show, however, that the Peter Principle is possible, not that it actually happens.

Dickinson and Villeval (2007) showed that the Peter Principle exists in a lab setting, as long as performance has both random and skill-based elements to it. This not only showed the Peter Principle at work, but also that it became stronger as the importance of the random element increased. Further it showed that using a promotion rule (i.e. people got promoted when they hit certain performance criteria) was still better than self-selection – as we’ve seen in other posts, people are bad at making judgements, particularly those relating to their own ability (in this case, a particular problem was attributing chance-related performance to their own ability).

Finally, alongside the many anecdotal examples, there has been some research into the real-world presence of The Principle. Barmby, Eberth and Ba (2006) conducted a review of over a decade’s worth of data from a large financial firm – this indicated that there was a drop in performance after promotion and that 2/3rds of this could be accounted for by the Peter Principle. Earlier Abraham and Medoff (1980) found that subjective performance was lower the longer people had been in a job, while Gibbs and Hendricks (2001) found that raises and bonuses fall with tenure – both these findings reflected that the people who performed worse in their role stayed their for longer (or that staying in the role too long decreases performance). Together these pieces of research suggest that people in a role for a long time are worse at their job, while those who get promoted perform worse at their next job.

The Many Theories Behind the Peter Principle

There seems to be, therefore, a consensus that the Peter Principle is a real world occurrence. There is not, however, agreement over what creates it. Explanations are many and varied, including: the change in skills required between different roles; regression to the mean; a reduction in motivation after a promotion; promoting people out of the way; strategic incompetence; and even that super-competence is less desired within an organisation than incompetence.

Different Jobs, Different Skills

The most immediately logical reason for a person to perform worse after a promotion is where the new job demands different skills to the last one. A common example is where those who are great at actually doing work are then promoted into a management role, but this applies each and every time someone moves into a new role.

This is particularly relevant in competency-based promotion systems, which are designed to try to emphasise cross-cutting skills, increase the available candidate pool and generate common standards across an organisation – clearly worthwhile goals. For organisations that have committed, however, to a largely competence based recruitment and promotion system, such as the UK Civil Service, this presents a real challenge. How can you really assess their ability to use very different skills, relying only on their past experience? Either you have to accept that you recruit people who already have experience in the same kind of role (defeating a key objective of the system) or you have to accept that you’ll sometimes promote people who don’t have the skills you’re after.

Our Culture

Our society constantly informs stockvault-ladder125723us that it is a positive to climb the career ladder, meaning promotion becomes an aspirational thing. This can lead to people either: a) being unhappy in roles that they’d really enjoy, if they didn’t have the weight of aiming for promotion hanging over them; or b) moving from roles that they are happy in and into a job they hate because it was a promotion.

To compound this, we’re hugely uncomfortable with the idea of either an organisation depromoting someone or someone choosing to move back to an old role. That can lead to people being fired, when we know they can be highly productive within the organisation, or staying in a job they hate until they retire, when they know there’s a job within the organisation they enjoy. One of the bravest people I know chose to take a demotion out of a management position back into their previous role – as a result they’re also one of the happiest.

This is a too broad a topic to digest here, but tools that can help include the recent focus on mindfulness, openness in the workplace and emphasising any successful examples.

Not Incompetence, but Stress

The Harvard Business Review wrote in 1976 (“The Real Peter Principle: Promotion to Pain”) that the problem didn’t arise due to people failing to have the right technical, academic or interpersonal skills to succeed, but due to them moving into a role where stress and anxiety suppresses them. This drives both an organisational decrease in productivity and an individual loss of well-being. Be aware that this doesn’t always become apparent through stereotypical over-emotional ways (e.g. temperamental behaviour, crying in the office), but can also be expressed through increasing passivity and detachment.

Returning to Normal Performance

Lazear argues that the Peter Principle is simply due to regression to the mean, and those involved in promoting failing to recognise that there is variation in performance (i.e. the regression fallacy). He argues that, as a promotion suggests a performance standard has been met, performance is likely to be lower in your new role. You are promoted because of your exceptional performance, which means either your ‘normal’ performance is exceptional (or better) and you were performing normally or that your ‘normal’ performance is less than exceptional, but that, for a period of time, your performance deviated from the mean by enough to reach that exceptional hurdle.

If you’re in the second group, then after promotion your performance is likely to regress back to the mean, so your performance is likely to be below the expectations when you were promoted. This is particularly apparent in the sporting world because you can measure someone’s performance – as an example, between the start of the English Premier League in 1992 and the end of the 2012/13 season, 33 players scored 20 goals in a season (the unwritten benchmark for a top quality striker). Only 12 of those were able to do it more than once; the vast majority regressed back to the mean.


This is a subset of the underestimation of variance in people’s performance, but here I’m only referring to variation due to luck (rather than our own performance). Given that this is a subset of the above, it again has a particular impact on competency-based systems.

As a purely anecdotal example, about 2 yeaDice and Poker Chipsrs ago I was working on six outline business cases with one other person. We shared the workload and both contributed to all of the proposals, but eventually had to (for process reasons) decide who was in the ‘lead’ for each option, so we split them down the middle – 3 each. I would have judged our work as of near identical quality. Yet, due to circumstances beyond my (or his) control, ‘my’ three business cases were accepted, to none of his. For my ‘success’ I received both praise and the highest performance marking, but due to my colleagues ‘failure’ he was largely forgotten.

It was only luck that separated us, but people judged us only on the outcome not the quality of work in getting there. This bias towards outcome is prevalent and it’s easy to get blinded by big numbers and impressive endings, but it’s important to take a step back. We neglect the role luck played in the candidates’ successes and failures – and, as Dickenson and Villeral showed earlier on, the bigger the role luck plays, the larger the effect of the Peter Principle.

Lost Interest After Promotion

This is a fairly obvious one – people work as hard as possible to get a promotion and once they’ve achieved that they no longer have a clear goal so lose motivation. I won’t spend too long on this, as I wrote about motivation in this post, but it makes particular sense in the context which that article set – not only is the motivation of promotion removed, but the focus on achieving promotion is also likely to reduce your intrinsic motivation in doing the job itself.

You’re Too Good; It’s Showing Us Up!

This one takes us back to Peter himself recite-k60xka– he stated that “in most hierarchies, super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence.” This one is impossible to find evidence for, beyond the anecdotal, but the argument is this – people who perform too well (or would clearly be better at their seniors’ jobs) disrupt the hierarchy of an organisation. The organisation fights to maintain that hierachy by acting against these who are “super-competent”. Therefore managers find spurious reasons to not promote staff or to avoid giving them strong performance reviews (this circular nature is part of what makes it difficult to find evidence – the response to super-competence is to find a way to deny any super-competence).

Further, peers often become suspicious of over-performers and can leave them isolated, which can result in organisations losing some of their most talented staff to places where they feel more ‘normal’.

Move Someone Up – and Out of the Way

Another slightly cynical one,recite-n50n5v but one lots of us have seen – people get promoted because their current business area wants to get rid of them. There are arguments that within certain types of firm (such as technology), it’s a organisational theme rather than just one-offs; people are moved into management because they lack the specific skills to do the skilled front-line work. Putt’s Law and the Successful Technocrat, published under the pseudonym Archibald Putt,  pursues exactly this theory – incompetence is “flushed out of the lower levels” leaving two kinds of people in technology, “those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand”.

As a slight aside, it’s worth noting some of the more innovative thinking about organisational structures – Joel Spolsky proposes that we should move away from the concept of a central management team being the top of an organisation and move towards it being ‘led’ by those doing front-line activity. In his world view (tinted towards technology, clearly) the ‘management team’ should not believe itself to be an executive, decision-making function, but a support function. Therefore it should be seen as “administration” – they do the things that help work get done. I’ll have a look at some organisational structure concepts in later posts.

“Strategic Incompetence”

Jared Sandberg came up with this termrecite-1mh30tn, while writing in The Wall Street Journal  (sorry, can’t find a link). His description was this – “Strategic incompetence isn’t about having a strategy that fails, but a failure that succeeds. It almost always works to deflect work one doesn’t want to do—without ever having to admit it.” He meant this in a range of situations, including people simply choosing to be terrible at a specific task (say, doing the ironing)  so they don’t have to do it anymore. In this context, however, we’re talking about when the most suitable people for promotion choose to perform badly enough to avoid it. This might not be by failing in their core responsibilities – presumably a major driver for doing this is that you enjoy your job more than the one you’d be promoted into – but can be by purposefully showing themselves to be unsuitable for the next step up, such as refusing to engage in the expected ‘networking’ activity or acting out at team events.

This behaviour results in less suitable people being promoted, but does mean that individuals using strategic incompetence avoid the Peter Principle – by purposefully avoiding promotion they avoid being moved up into their maximally incompetent role (or “final placement” as Peter called it). It opens up an interesting topic, e.g. is this an effective personal strategy (as you avoid the stress noted above)? Or could it even be good for the organisation as a whole (as you have people in roles where they’re still highly competent)? This leads on to my final section; how can we try to avoid, or at least dampen the effect of, the Peter Principle.

Is There Anything We Can Do?

Here are a few thoughts, to provide a starting point, on how we can counter the Principle:

Focus on Proof of Performance in the New Role – Sorry for stating the blindingly obvious, but this is still the main area where organisations go wrong. The focus should not be on how good the employee has been, but on how good they’re going to be in the new role (which can clearly include consideration of previous performance). One way to do this is to complement competencies with tailored tests (whether specific skill, situational judgement, personality, or scenario-based testing). Another way is to really narrow down the focus on competencies to the new role. This often means trying to forget about the outcomes and concentrating on the elements of the process that are relevant.

Finally, it’s often possible (though you need to consider whether the role merits the cost) to run some sort of “real life interview” over a couple of days, by assessing performance in a more life-like scenario. This can include the obvious – like asking candidates to research and deliver a presentation or analyse some part of your business – but can also involve something a bit different, like allowing them to genuinely perform a business operation for a short period or giving them some funding and letting them show what they can deliver with it.

Adjusting for Luck and Regression to the Mean – We need to avoid focusing purely on outcomes, particularly where luck is a major determinant. By asking people with knowledge of the area where the candidate’s competencies comes from, you can start to assess the impact luck could have had. To adjust for regression to the mean, we need to avoid just relying on a few one-off examples or merely someone’s performance over the last period – find ways to take a range of information on board (and simulate their real-world performance, as suggested above). Allowing someone to merely present a few of their highlights is bound to give a very unbalanced picture of themselves (and is likely to be biased against those who deliver at a high level consistently – they’ll appear worse than those with occasional exceptional work, even if they deliver indifferently most of the time. On a different note, it’s also biased towards those who are comfortable lying).

Have Genuine Skill-Specific Career Paths – This is a fairly well-trodden road, but still a worthwhile one and still one that is poorly executed. Organisations need to recognise the value of specific skills to them – and accept that sometimes people can still be worth the big bucks without having to manage people. By opening up different career paths (rather than the typical process of starting as a worker, becoming a skilled worker, then managing workers), organisations can make the most of their people, while rewarding them appropriately. One of the skills that is often forgotten about is the ability to manage well – this is a skill in itself and should be recognised individually. Just because someone is a great manager, it doesn’t mean they’ll be a great strategic thinker. This is where I think Joel Spolsky’s approach can help managers; acknowledging a distinct “administration” function of a business leads towards the acceptance that specific skills are needed to keep everything else operating.

Typically organisations start this process in good faith, but let it become contaminated as other areas of the business want to have roles at the newly created level – until eventually it just becomes another level across the whole organisation (which is a worse than neutral result, as it simply adds an extra layer into the hierarchy). The purpose behind creating a specific career path must be clearly defined and that purpose must be maintained for the organisation to get a pay off.

Probationary Promotions – This is a cultural (maybe even societal?) challenge, as it would remove the big-deal nature of promotion and make movement both up and down an organisation more common. It is, however, clearly the best way to know whether someone can really do the job; and let’s them know whether they want to!

Generate Movement – There’s a simple solution to people getting stuck in jobs that they’re ill-suited; create a system that forces movement onto people. This has downsides – you’re also moving people out of jobs they’re very well suited to, some people like feeling settled and you break up teams that work well together – but it does avoid people staying in their “maximum incompetence” role. A number of firms do this, through a couple of ways; some companies have firing and promotion for fixed percentages of their workforce on a regular basis, whilst others just have mandated ‘rotation’ periods (e.g. everyone has to move role every two years).

Taking Responsibility for Yourself – We all need to look after ourselves a bit more and really think about our career moves and what we want from it. In reality, I get that it’s very difficult not to get swept up in the excitement of being offered a new position and the societal belief that moving up an organisational ladder is a good thing (never mind the money!). We need, however, to go into new jobs with our eyes open and as prepared as possible – we should think about the possibility of promotion early and consider what we want from work. We can’t just lay the blame at our employers feet if we find ourselves in a job we don’t enjoy – we have to take some responsibility.

So what do you think? Are there any other reasons the Peter Principle exists? Is it, to some extent, inevitable? And, most importantly, is there anything else we can do to mitigate it?

When Getting Paid Makes You Worse at Things

We’re always looking for our dream job and whatever that consists of – money, power, pleasure or any other motivator. For lots of us, it’s trying to make enough money doing whatever we enjoy most in the world. Research into motivation, however, suggests this might be even more difficult than it sounds.

For many centuries, science (at least Western Science) only recognised two forms of motivation: biological (i.e. the need to drink, eat and reproduce) and external motivation (i.e. the rewards and punishments delivered by the environment you find yourself in). Logically that felt sensible and, as a paradigm, could be used to explain the vast majority of behaviour.

The arts, as is often the case, were ahead of the game. In 1876, Mark Twain wrote “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, in which Tom tricks his friend into doing a task he finds particularly dull (whitewashing a large fence) by suggesting that it is actually the most exciting thing anyone could possibly do. Following on from this, Twain wrote “that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do”. Further, Twain observed that the wealthy choose to do things for fun (e.g. driving horse-drawn passenger coaches) that others are paid for, “but if they recite-1l8kw8lwere offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign”. Daniel Pink – whose book “Drive” I would highly recommend and inspired various parts of this post – even decided to name this change in motivation in response to whether something is mentally classified as work or play the “Sawyer Effect”.

Twain had noticed something that it took science a fair few more decades to realise – there was a third form of motivation. There is an intrinsic pleasure in doing certain tasks, which can’t be explained by either biological need or external stimuli (although it can be influenced by someone convincing you that a task is really exciting!). In fact, I was prompted to write this post because it is that intrinsic motivation that makes me write; I enjoy the process of writing and I find it a rewarding experience in itself.

Firstly I’ll have a look at some of the science behind this form of motivation, before offering a few practical tips on how we can cultivate this motivation in the workplace.

The Science 

Anyway, when science got round to catching up, it did so by chance – another repeating trend. In 1949, Harry Harlow (alongside Margaret Harlow and Donald Meyer) was studying how different organisms learn, on this occasion by studying rhesus monkeys (before launching into his accidental discovery, it’s worth noting that Harlow did make huge progress in the studies of affection and learning). These monkeys were to solve a simple mechanical monkey-166942_1280problem and, in order to get the  monkeys comfortable with the equipment, the puzzle was placed in their cages. To the surprise of the experimenters, the monkeys immediately focused on solving the puzzle. They seemed to be showing both determination and joy. By the time the experimenters wanted to test them, they were already highly capable of solving the problem, due to their unexpected practice habits. These monkeys had not been shown how to solve the puzzle, they’d not been encouraged to do so, they’d received no reward and yet they still did it. It was in response to this that Harlow raised this intrinsic form of motivation – the “performance of the task provided intrinsic reward”.

Harlow wanted to test how strong this motivation was – could it beat out one of the two conventional motivations? He ran the same experiment again, using the same test, but providing a food reward to the trial monkeys. To his surprise the monkeys with a food reward performed worse than those without – they made more mistakes and were slower. The introduction of a reward actually reduced performance, a potentially revolutionary finding. But it was a bit too anti-establishment and no progress was made for another 20 years, when a scientist called Edward Deci decided to push at the boundaries of motivation again – this time with humans.

Intrinsic Motivation in Humans?

Deci wanted to test whether paying someone to perform a task made it intrinsically less interesting. To do this he used a Soma cube – a set of pieces that can be arranged into different shapes – and a group of university students, who he divided into two. All the students were presented with three drawings of Soma configurations and were asked to assemble them. When they had configured two, Deci left the room to, allegedly, get a fourth drawing. In reality, this was the key stage; he wanted to know what they students did when he left the room. Would they keep playing with the cube or would they do something else (various papers and magazines were left around as possible distractions)? Both groups of students had to do this every day for three days.

A Soma cube sofa
A Soma cube sofa

The difference between the two groups of students was that one would never be paid based on their performance – they received no performance related pay on any of the three days – while the other received no payment on day 1, did receive payment on day 2 and were then told that the money had run out and they would not be paid on day 3.

During the period Deci was out the room (8 minutes), the unpaid group played with the Soma cube for about 4 minutes each of the three days. The other group spent about 4 minutes on the Soma cube on Day 1, behaving similarly to the unpaid group. On Day 2 (when they were paid) they got, understandably, a lot more interested in the cube and played with the puzzle for over 5 minutes – they were trying to get a head start on the third and fourth puzzles. This was as you’d expect. The big test, however, was day 3. This group, not paid for day 3, became disinterested in the cube, only playing with it for less than 3 minutes – less than when they were paid, but also substantially less than the group who’d been unpaid all three days.

The payment of money had reduced the intrinsic interest in solving the puzzle. It delivered short term motivation and enhanced focus on Day 2, but reduced interest in it afterwards. Money was like having a sugar boost; it made things better for a while, but worse afterwards.

What can we do?

Alongside other research (such as Glucksberg, 1962 and 1964 – which showed that offering rewards reduces creativity, as people narrow their focus and reduce their ability to think laterally), this suggests that the typical offering of most employers – if you do this, then you’ll get paid that – isn’t the best, or most consistent, form of motivation (particularly as you have to keep handing over more and more money).  It is, however, the easiest and most visible form of reward, so organisations have stuck with this.

There are other options though. Given that we now know that making a task into ‘work’ both reduced productivity and creativity, we need to find ways to either make tasks less work-like or specify less of the tasks that have to be completed at work.

Let People Do More of What They Want

Google’s famous 20% time – where it allows its employees to use 20% of their time on their own projects – makes sense when combined with our learning above. Valve, the game developer, might well argue that 100% of employee time is spent on work that has some intrinsic motivation; it, theoretically at least, has a flat structure where people are free to work on whatever they want (the idea being that the best ideas draw the most people together).

By giving people this freedom you’re allowing them to spend time on what intrinsically motivates them, so they can deliver more productively and creatively. Now 20% may well be too much – it might not be industry appropriate or it might be too big a first step – but trying out a smaller percentage makes sense. It’s also worth testing, so run a trial. You don’t have to commit forever.  Finding a way to give employees time to work on things that both help the organisation and are their own choice is a real win-win.

Give People Purpose, Not Tasks

General George Patton, a US Commander during the Second World War, said of his experiences “never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surecite-eu71trprise you with their ingenuity”. By giving people direction, but not specifics for how to do their work, you can prevent tasks becoming ‘work’. This also lets people play to their strengths and bring in other people to help them reach their goal. This additional freedom, or even sense of freedom, helps maintain stable intrinsic motivation.  Further, it means people have a clearer understanding of why they’re doing their work – and we’re predisposed to wanting to know “why?”.

Create Diverse Teams

By creating teams with a wide range of skills and experiences, you generate an environment where interaction is encouraged (primarily because it’s the only way not to get left behind). This means people are often brought into the work of others, so everyone spends time working on topics outside their normal remit. This serves two purposes: you develop a greater sense of buy-in to the team’s purpose, enabling more understanding of, and motivation towards, that goal; and employees get to use previous experiences to solve current “non-work” (for them) problems. Together this means people are more likely to maintain their intrinsic motivation at work, amongst many other non-motivation related benefits.

Create a Peer-to-Peer Benefit System

As we read earlier, tasks become work when you’re rewarded for doing them. For humans in an organisational environment it’s a bit more complicated – it depends where the reward is coming from. It also depends on why you feel you’re being rewarded. If your boss gives you a pay rise because you met all the targets you were set, the tasks you were doing were most likely ‘work’. If yhandshake-442908_1280our peer gives you a bonus because they were really impressed with something you did, then that’s very different – you feel like you’re being recognised for your own skills, abilities and personality rather than doing specific tasks. By creating a peer-to-peer system, you remove the hierarchicaoval of intrinsic motivation.

Involve People in Goal Setting

If you can involve people in setting their own goals, while keeping them ambitious and aligned with the organisation’s objectives, then you’ll be able to internalise the goal. By changing targets from something that is thrust upon employees to something that they have had a role in deciding, you make that objective meaningful to the individual – they were involved so must think it is a ‘good’ thing (and due to cognitive dissonance, if they believe that they were involved, they will come to think that the target is worthwhile, even if it isn’t what they would have chosen beforehand). This can make financial and intrinsic motivation align, leading to great performance.

Why can’t Metrics just be Indicators?

Humans like to measure things. It gives people a sense of understanding, and a related feeling of control. On the topic of measuring things, I’ve been through a range of opinions: I started believing that we just needed to improve performance metrics, so they better fit with their aims; moved to a nihilistic view that the focus on targets was negative, so removing measurements would improve performance; but I now believe that what’s most important is a level beyond that – understanding what the measurement is really measuring, what any results mean and why we should care.

Firstly, though, why the spread of the culture of measurement? Organisations do this for a number of reasons: it allows them to use targets to motivate staff; as entities get bigger, it’s more difficult to see what’s going on in your business; automation allows us to measure more than ever; they are easy to show to shareholders and other stakeholders; and, if I dare to be so bold, the more you measure, the more chance of finding a metric showing a positive trend.

So what’s the problem? Primarily that these measurements can lead to more and more negative behaviours – they can drive different parts of organisations to act against each other, actions that don’t fit with overall aims, time consuming analysis and unnecessary stress.

These issues arise for reasons such as: wanting to measure the performance of the smallest possible organisational unit clashing with the need to maximise the organisation’s overall delivery (this can lead to a lack of co-ordination between areas of the business, creating messy hand-offs and reducing overall efficiency); metrics either not measuring what they’re meant to (or thinking they measure something different); the clouding of a metric’s meaning due to uncontrollable or unforeseen variables; a misdirection of incentives and/or focus; unnecessary proliferation of data; and the creation of too many or inappropriate targets.

Those kinds of considerations led me to my first standpoint – we just need to invest more time and money in measuring the right things and that’ll lead to better results. It’s true that most organisations massively under-invest in their approach to performance metrics. It’s simple to keep using the same ones, it allows an easy comparison to other years and, potentially, across organisations and it’s easy for everyone to understand. And often the longer a metric has been in existence the less we remember about the subtleties of what’s really being measures, and the more we try to flex how we use it. Ultimately, however, I could see no way to reconcile all the different motives for metrics into one cohesive model.

Bill Walsh – the 3 time Super Bowl Champion

This led me to move towards the Bill Walsh and John Wooden philosophy that the “score will take care of itself”. This supposes that focusing on any figure will lead to negative results, even if that figure is the bottom line (in their case the final score). They suggest that the focus should be on processes rather than outputs. If all the processes are performed as well as possible, then the final result will take care of itself. It’s a powerful and empowering approach. It brings activity right down to its basic components and puts emphasis on individuals, rather than numbers. It defines success as each individual achieving as near to their potential as possible, removing ability biases that can demoralise those who are less talented (because they can never “win”) and make the more talented become lazy (because they can “win” without delivering to their potential) It’s also the approach that I would take (and do take) when coaching sport. It makes it easy to be fair, helps push people and removes pressure.

However, it can’t work everywhere – in a large organisation you can’t see every employee, so you have to rely on other people’s judgements. But that then leaves you unable to compare performance across areas because people’s standards are all different. It also works in sport because, however much you try to ignore it, there is ultimately a way to quantify how you’re doing – just look at the score. There is a clear motivation and there is quick feedback on how the team is performing. This isn’t true of a team within a larger business. Finally, it leaves you with only the most basic outputs to communicate to others – if you only have your balance sheet then it’s very difficult to explain what’s really happening.

Thinking about metrics didn’t get me too far, so I started thinking about thinking about metrics. Our workplace culture has led us to view every metric as a key performance indicator and every key performance indicator (KPI) as an output in its own right. The easiest way to justify success is to show a number that’s getting better and the clearest way to be seen as failing is to oversee a range of figures all getting worse. The more we measure the more figures that become targets and the more time we have to spend focusing on how to make them better, rather than trying to achieve real organisational goals.

We’ve forgotten that KPIs are only indicators – they show us what is happening within an organisation and help us to identify areas where we’re performing well or poorly. A change in any metric is an insight into what’s happening, but only as much as any other source of information, such as the organisation’s overall delivery or the reports that you get from your staff (let’s not pretend that numbers can be just as biased as any other sort of information). And, even worse, we increasingly believe that anything we can measure is important.

This is what ultimately leads to the negatives that I noted earlier – an over-reliance on numbers, a misunderstanding of what they reflect and a failure to explore what the numbers are showing us. To shift back to American sports, an NBA team might have their interest piqued by someone who can jump 45 inches high and run the three quarter sprint in under 3 seconds. But they’d then go and watch the player actually play.

This limits what people can achieve – they are confined to act in such a way that increases “their figures”. Not only does this mean we stop people doing what’s right, but we disengage them as well – they begin to feel a lack of trust and an inability to do what they think is best. It can also lead to us rewarding people who aren’t the most deserving – if two salespeople both pitch perfectly, but one pulls in a million pound deal, while the other can’t make a sale then we’d see the first rewarded, when really they’ve both performed identically – leading to further disengagement and encouraging inappropriate behaviours (like trying to close other people’s sales).

Some organisations are better at this than others, but I believe the vast, vast majority can improve. This can only happen by seriously looking at the figures being generated and reviewing how they’re used. This takes time and is an investment, but it enables a workforce to deliver more and leaders to make better, more informed decisions. This change has to be top-down – when you stop being assessed on non-essential metrics, then you are able to free others.

Do I believe this is an easy thing to do? No – it’s a big cultural shift and removes the illusion of having sight of all parts of a business, but I do believe it’s possible. And we still need to look for better metrics, which I’ll talk about in later posts, and maintain a focus on the process. Overall it reflects where a lot of organisational issues come from; in line with Nietzsche’s quote above, everything else starts to become more important that what we actually set out to achieve.