Seeking Balance with ‘People Problems’

Part Three of Three

A Six Minute Read

It is easy to treat “people problems” as disciplinary issues, chalking up the cause of the problem to the employees problems themselves, and their motivations. Sometimes there are indeed bad actors, but strong leaders make sure they set their team up for success.

Taking an honest look at what expectations have been set, and communicated, can bring clarity to such concerns. If there are gray areas – or even full gaps – in expectations, employees will likely run into trouble. Previously, I outlined some ways to create that clarity to avoid problems in the future.

Years ago, in bureaucratic, command-and-control environments, simply telling staff what to do would be enough to get results; indeed, when performance lagged, the root cause could often be tied directly to an employee’s discipline. Those days are gone, so it becomes more important to understand what other forces, besides  internal “motivation”,  lead to success or failure in the workplace.

Diagnosing the Environment – And How It Reacts

An adaptation of Newton’s Third Law applies here – for every action an employee takes, there will be a reaction. What that reaction is – how those forces impact employees – drives their behavior.

Rick was a desk clerk at a mammoth convention center hotel. On the first day of a big show – which was usually weekly – there could easily be over 50 people in line to check in. It was really stressful! By the time they got to the front of the line, guests would be angry.

John, the desk manager, knew he had a problem with Rick. The new guy, Peter, would greet guests at his station, get them smiling and walking to the elevators with their key in less than a minute; Rick could take four or five minutes and the guests usually didn’t look happy when they walked away.

The problems would start when Rick tried to assign guests’ rooms (it seemed they all wanted nonsmoking rooms with king beds and nice views!) If he couldn’t find the right one, either he would call John over to help him calm the guest down, or the guest would get angry and ask to see the manager. Either way, Rick felt a cloud of incompetence hovering.

John tried to solve the “Rick Problem” with additional training – in both customer service and computer skills. Rick felt he was technically capable, he just couldn’t churn through guests the way Peter did. His discipline file was getting thick. He loved hospitality but wondered if maybe he wasn’t cut out for it.

Even though it was embarrassing, he sat down with Peter to ask for advice. How did he move the lines so quickly?

 “I joke with them a little about the line, tell them I have a lovely room for them, and put them in the very first room the computer assigns,” Peter said.

“But the computer assigns the worst rooms first!” Rick reminded him. Meaning, lower floors, smaller rooms, twin beds, and ashtrays would be assigned before nonsmoking kings overlooking downtown. It was a remnant of how the inventory was coded in pre-computer guest registers. “You’re almost certainly putting them in a room they don’t want!”

“Yes, but I’m getting them out of the line,” Peter replied. “If they don’t like the room, logiclonglinesthey can either come back down and get at the end of the line – which they won’t do – or they’ll call the manager and complain. Then it’s John’s problem. And I can’t get in trouble, because I actually didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Is that good service? Putting a customer in a room they won’t want?”

“How is it better service to make them wait, and still put them in a room they don’t want? Besides, I never get called on the carpet for being too slow…”

Although he was uncomfortable with it, Rick decided to adopt Peter’s “rack ‘em, stack ‘em, and pack ‘em” approach. He was able to move the line more quickly, and spent less time in the manager’s office. He knew when the monthly guest satisfaction reports arrived that overall complaints were skyrocketing, but he also knew that ugly words on the occasional fax paled in comparison to being shouted at daily.

There were, in fact, several behind-the-scenes factors that contribute to this problem, but the manager feels he’s hit on the right cause: Slow employees, who don’t understand “the system”. After all, Peter seems to get it. John has set the same expectations for Peter and for Rick, and he has confirmed that Rick understands them. Clearly, Rick is the problem.

Only he’s not.

When discussing human error, John Lauber of the US National Transportation Safety Board reminds us that “performance takes place in a context.” To understand why people behave the way they do, it is important to understand that context.

Reviewing a performance environment forces us to examine how that environment responds to individuals. Does it encourage them or discourage them from repeating themselves?

In the above example, Rick is actually discouraged from doing the right thing. If he tries to satisfy his guest:

  • It takes longer than it should
  • It involves more work
  • The guest gets angry
  • Managers intervene
  • Rick feels incompetent

Whereas, when he starts doing the “wrong” thing, by ignoring guest requests, he clears his workflow and has a happier day. Organizationally, his (and Peter’s) behavior is creating far more concerns, as complaints pile up, but as Peter said, that is for someone else to deal with.

Are Actions and Reactions Balanced?

Some questions to ask while investigating problems that are “clearly” people-caused, or at least people-related, include:

  • What is the expectation that we have set for the employee?
  • What is the reaction (from clients, colleagues, supervisors) if he does exactly what we have laid out? (Think about “formal” reactions, such as discipline, and “informal” reactions, such as a feeling of incompetence.)
  • How will that reaction encourage him to continue to perform that way?
  • How will that reaction discourage him from continuing?

In many instances, the answers to that last question will far outweigh the answers to the one before it. That is, if there’s a problem, there are likely more things discouraging good behavior than encouraging it.

Finally, look at what the employee is actually doing – contra to the stated expectations – and ask:

  • What are the effects she feels for not meeting expectations? What is the (formal/informal) reaction of the environment?
  • How does that reaction encourage her to continue performing this way?

The reaction Rick felt for attempting to meet expectations certainly discouraged him, and there was nothing in place to encourage him to do the right thing. Whereas Peter failed to meet stated expectations – putting the guest in the room reserved – yet the effects on him included smiling guests and happy managers. It is little wonder that the environment actually encouraged him to do “the wrong thing”.

Solving Problems

Understanding how the culture – usually subtly – makes it easier to cut corners or mis-perform can be key to unlocking why problems exist.

When troubleshooting problems, it is easy to lay the blame at people and look no further (e.g., why are more guests promised king beds than the hotel has?). As we saw with aircraft investigations, blaming people is seductively simple but obscures finding genuine solutions. If we really do suspect human activity is a contributing cause, understanding what expectations have been set – or even if they have been set – will help us determine whether or not we are looking at systemic failure.

Finally, appreciating the performance environment, how it acts on employees, and how they react – for good and for bad – demonstrates why these problems even occurred in the first place. Asking some simple questions about the repercussions for meeting (or not) expectations can illuminate complex human behavior.