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What “Common Knowledge” Gets Wrong


Multitasking Slows You Down

You have several projects on your plate already, and an e-mail arrives asking you to start another right away. You don’t want to say “no” to the Big Boss. What do you do?

I think there’s always a way to say “yes.” Start by guessing at the number of hours it would take you. If taking the project will not impact your ability to complete the others on time, go for it, obviously. If taking it will impact the other projects, say: “I will be glad to. Please tell me what priority this has compared to my other projects, and I will push back the deadline on the lower priorities by x hours,” with “x” being the hours you think the new project will take.

If you have a rational boss, they will not have a problem with that. They will either accept your plan or give the new task to someone else, while respecting your willingness to do it. (If they accept the plan, be sure to send a confirming e-mail listing all the projects that will be delayed, so you have that in writing.)

If you have an irrational boss, you may hear something like: “You need to learn to multitask.” A compelling study says your response could be, “But that will reduce my productivity. Surely you don’t want that, sir/ma’am?”

Imagine you are a judge handling labor issues in Italy. You can imagine that, right? Lawyers on both sides are pushing you to hold the first hearing on a new case. An oversight commission may hassle you if you don’t start the case within 60 days of your getting it. But you feel like you have a full load already. Do you go ahead and open the case?

The new study shows pretty clearly that you will slow down that new case, and all your other cases, if you do. It was conducted by three economists, Decio Coviello of the Univ. of Rome “Tor Vergata,” Andrea Ichino of the Univ. of Bologna, and Nicola Persico of New York Univ. It was published by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

You may be wondering why economists are looking at judge’s behaviors. Economics is defined on as “the science that deals with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services…” Judging is a service produced. The study lists a number of other studies by economists showing problems caused by workers juggling tasks.

In my “Active Listening” class, I would report on work by neurologists on the subject. Brain scans show that when you think you are focusing equally on two things at once, what your brain is actually doing is switching so fast between one task and the other that you don’t consciously notice. But every time the switch happens, there is a period where the brain isn’t focused on either task. When I told a friend who works at Red Hat about this, Director of Certification Randy Russell, he said computer programmers call this “context switching.” They try to limit how much the computer does it, because it wastes time and energy. Ditto for our brains.

The NBER study measured the case closings of 31 judges over six years. The economists accounted for some factors that might influence how long it took to get a case closed, such as the judge’s experience, ability, quality of work, and level of effort. Of course it would take longer to close a more complicated case, but by law the cases are assigned in a completely random way, so case types should have been relatively the same for all judges.

The more cases on average a judge kept open at any one time, the longer it took him or her to complete any case on average, and the bigger the backlog the judge built up. “The judges who work on few cases at the same time, and try to close them quickly before opening new ones, succeed in closing a larger number of cases per quarter and in less time from the assignment” of the case to them, the authors write. “It is important to keep in mind that these differences emerge among judges of the same office, who work in exactly the same conditions, with the same secretarial assistance and with a very similar workload in terms of quantity and quality,” they add.

Managers should note that the 60-day rule proved counterproductive. It caused some judges to open cases before finishing other ones, increasing their backlog, which would eventually harm the chances of their making the deadline on later cases. This is measurable, real-world evidence for a practice psychology and project management experts have long said actually hurts the managers who use it. Telling people to “hurry up” instead of taking a measured look at their workloads only makes the situation worse.

This study is also in line with a goal-setting study[1] showing a company is more likely to accomplish four goals if it only has four at a time instead of eight, for example. As the NBER authors conclude, “workers who juggle too many tasks are necessarily slower in completing (their) workload than workers who concentrate… on few tasks at the same time.”

The next time you have to do several tasks in a short period, figure out how long you have for each (allowing for interruptions), and do each, one at a time, for that length. For example, if you have to do three items in an hour, first turn off your e-mail program and silence the phone. The world will survive without you for an hour. Then do one task for 20 minutes and stop, and repeat for the next two. I promise you will get more done at a higher quality than you would otherwise.

Source: Coviello, D., A. Ichino, and N. Persico (2010), “Don’t Spread Yourself Too Thin: The Impact of Task Juggling on Workers’ Speed of Job Completion,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 16502.

Stress: Distress or Eustress? You Choose

Scientists do not use the word “stress” the way most people do: as an inherently negative state. According to Dr. Robert Franken, “Stress is… viewed as set of neurological/physiological reactions that serve some ultimate adaptive purpose,” reactions including blood becoming thicker and rushing to the brain and muscles, sweating, fats being released in the bloodstream, and increased breathing rates. As you might suspect, this is what we often call a “fight-or-flight response,” and indeed, all of these reactions allow us to do either of those things better—or heal better if they fail. (Thicker blood contains more of the chemicals the body needs to heal and presumably bleeds out slower.)

In developed nations, the events that trigger this reaction rarely require physical action or risk injury, however. Repeated exposure to these physical changes without the ability to respond physically is blamed for the well-documented connection between what business people call stress and higher disease and death rates.

But there’s a catch. “How the individual responds to those reactions determines whether they produce feelings of distress (a negative feeling) or produce feelings of eustress (a positive feeling),” Dr. Franken wrote in his textbook, Human Motivation. Jumping from an airplane creates the fight-or-flight response. If you jumped out on purpose, you enjoy the response. If the plane has stopped working, you probably don’t.

This distinction is important because the internal physical reaction is actually a two-step process. First the reaction needed to arouse greater attention and deal with an immediate threat kicks in. About 10 seconds later, secondary reactions that provide more long-term energy occur, and that response takes between 15 minutes and one hour to return to normal. The diseases associated with distress, to use the more precise term, appear to come mostly from this second phase.

There can be a third phase. If the distress remains long enough, the adrenal glands that create all of the hormones in the two-phase reactions can eventually collapse, “often the precursor to death…” Franken wrote.

What I see in this is a 10-second window of opportunity to control your internal response to a stress event, which fits perfectly with what I teach as the “S-R/S-R” model. An external stimulus (“S”) creates a response (“R”) in us, but it’s not like the classic response test where you cross your legs and the doctor hits below your kneecap with a rubber hammer, creating an automatic external reaction. The knee jerk is due to the “autonomic nervous system.” The nerve signal from the hammer only has to travel to your spinal cord, which sends back the message to move out of the way of the perceived danger to the leg. The brain only perceives the problem later, though this happens so fast we don’t realize there’s a gap.

Instead, the stress reaction it is an internal response which becomes an internal stimulus (“R/S”) for the external response. In the workplace, then, we have two opportunities to control our external responses to outside events like a harsh word from a co-worker. First, we can change our internal R such that it does not become an internal S. Second, if that doesn’t work—if we get angered by that harsh word—we can control the external R. That is, we can keep our trap shut until we calm down.

Now I know how long we have to do that before we hurt ourselves: 10 seconds, which is an eternity. Maybe that old anger-management advice about counting to 10 has a scientific basis after all.

Source: Franken, R. (1994), Human Motivation, 3rd ed. Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.: Pacific Grove, CA.

An Autocratic Boss does not Always Hurt a Team

One of the themes harped on by leadership speakers and bloggers is that autocratic bosses are bad leaders. Often the order-giver is disparaged as a “manager” instead of “leader.” (Horrors!) When I hear this in some speech, I want to rudely stand up and ask, “What about bosses on the battlefield? Or a football field?”

In each of these examples, I would want an autocratic leader, because you don’t have time for the group to debate orders. A slow reaction on the battlefield equals death. An American football game would last days if the team with the ball debated each play in the huddle, rather than taking orders from the coach or quarterback. Nor would members of either group question the need for that arrangement. Granted, these teams benefit from discussion when not in fighting mode: The American military is a leading funder of teamwork research. However, a study published in 2013 finds there are cases where an order-giving boss might be perfectly fine for team performance.

A group of researchers from three U.S. universities looked into “power distance.” They explain, “Power distance values at the leader level refer to the extent to which a leader expects his or her subordinates to… be more obedient to and accept a leader’s directive influence.” Similar to that, “power distance values at the team level reflect team members’ shared preferences regarding the degree to which their leader’s directives should be respected and shown deference.” To assess these, the researchers asked 78 teams and their formal team leaders in two service companies to rate their agreement with statements like:

  • “Managers should make most decisions without consulting subordinates.”
  • “Subordinates should not disagree with managers’ decisions.”

The researchers also asked each team’s upper manager (a level above the team leader) about overall performance. When they crunched the numbers, they found that on average, a team leader’s beliefs about obedience had zero correlation to team performance!

Stunning, eh? Beware of averages, however, because a relationship did emerge from the data. If the teams and their team leaders differed on the topic of power distance, that caused problems—whether the team wanted the boss to be less autocratic or more so. In either case, team members felt the team was run unfairly. Specifically, they rated those team leaders lower on “procedural justice” in the surveys, measured by statements like:

  • “Our manager generates standards so that decisions can be made with consistency.”
  • “Our manager has all parties affected by the decision represented.”

As found in other studies, better-performing teams tended to perceive higher levels of procedural justice. (We can’t judge which caused the other from this study.) When the leader and team members agreed on power distance, the team both saw the leader as fair and performed well. I should note that if they disagreed, it was better for the boss to be less autocratic than the team wanted, rather than too autocratic. To play it safe, err on the side of not giving orders where possible.

Team leaders were also asked to rate each team member on something called “organizational citizenship behavior” or OCB. Studies have consistently found OCBs help team and company performance. The behaviors can be broken into five categories listed here with sample rating statements from the team leader survey:

  • Altruism—“This employee willingly helps others who have work-related problems.”
  • Conscientiousness—“This employee is one of my most conscientious employees.”
  • Sportsmanship—“This employee consumes a lot of time complaining about trivial matters.”
  • Courtesy—“This employee tries to avoid creating problems for coworkers.”
  • Civic virtue—“This employee attends functions that are not required, but help the company image.”

OCBs were related to better performance, but not the way the scientists expected. They thought the highest levels of OCBs would occur at the highest levels of perceived justice, but OCBs actually peaked at a medium level of justice. The scientists were not sure why. They speculate in a journal article it may be because a boss sometimes has to make decisions affecting individual team members whether or not the member (or boss) likes that. I can think of other cases where the team leader may act contrary to the level of order-giving both sides prefer. For instance, I have known people who just want to be told what to do, but an autocratic boss pressured to be a “leader” may ask for the team’s input anyway sometimes. In any of these cases, a team may recognize a high level of procedural justice yet not behave well when the manager goes against the preferred style.

This study is the first to look at this topic, and the subjects were mostly young, male workers in China, so we can’t claim this finding applies to everybody. But it should lead you to question sweeping generalizations made by consultants.

To be clear, I do not think this study is a license for autocrats. First, bosses tend to have warped views of what their teams really want. Most people are reluctant to criticize the boss, and managers like other humans suffer “confirmation bias,” the tendency to only see evidence that supports our opinions. Especially—but not only—in the case of the autocratic boss, the boss tends to think the team accepts their management style. You would need an anonymous survey of members like the one in this study to get an unbiased picture.

Also, since most business teams are not under gunfire or being tackled at work, we have to respect the powerful body of evidence proving teams that make their own decisions outperform those ordered around, in most cases. For interdependent workers that do not want empowerment, the answer is not to become more autocratic. Instead, educate the team on the benefits of empowerment and provide a structure that makes it less burdensome and scary, like that detailed in Full Scale agile™.

Source: Cole, M., M. Carter, and Z. Zhang (2013), “Leader–Team Congruence in Power Distance Values and Team Effectiveness: The Mediating Role of Procedural Justice Climate.” Journal of Applied Psychology, advance online publication, doi: 10.1037/a0034269.

Emotional Support Can Reduce Worker Well-Being

Sometimes, dear reader, I wonder if I’m making your life harder. Many “obvious” or popular ideas about working with other people turn out to be more complicated than you thought. Some turn out to be false. And instead of letting you go on doing what worked well enough in the past, I tell you to change your ways if you want to be the best you can be.

With that worry expressed, I now have the duty to inform you that providing emotional support to a co-worker could make their depressed mood worse. For managers who recognize providing support is part of their gig or people who try to be good team players by providing it, this could get frustrating.

The culprits in this latest complication in your life are behavioral scientist Inbal Nahum-Shani of the Univ. of Michigan, organizational behaviorist Peter Bamberger of Tel Aviv Univ., and labor management professor Samuel Bacharach at Cornell Univ. Something they saw in previous studies apparently got them curious. One line of thought is that humans have an unwritten rule you should give as much emotional support as you get. When the exchange is out of balance, the over-giver feels resentment and the over-receiver feels guilty. A competing idea is that being an over-giver makes you feel important, like you matter. The journal article calls this the “mattering principle,” a phrase I love. Being an over-receiver, by contrast, makes one feels weak and inferior. Beneath both ideas is the concept of “conservation of resources,” meaning simply that we all need to keep some emotional reserves to get through life. There are studies to support each of these theories, but not overwhelming proof. Something more is going on.

Nahum-Shani, Bamberger, and Bacharach—which seems like a great name for a law firm—set up a large study to find out what that something is. Drawing names randomly from lists of U.S. union members in transportation, manufacturing, and construction, they conducted two interviews per person lasting 60-75 minutes each with 1,070 people. The first time, interviewers asked how much help each person got from the three people closest to them (not only co-workers) and how much they gave back. Specifically they asked “the extent to which each one… listens, shows understanding and caring, and provides advice when needed.” The interviewers also asked about mental and physical symptoms of depression over the prior month, such as, “I felt that everything I did was an effort,” “shortness of breath,” and “loss of appetite.”

A year later, the interviewers called again and re-asked the questions about the depression symptoms. This step sets this study apart from a lot of the ones you read about in the news. It makes it much more likely the emotional support levels caused any changes in depression symptoms. Too often people, including journalists, assume that because two factors viewed at one point in time seemed related, one change caused the other. I read a cute story recently about a statistics professor who pointed out that crickets chirp more when temperatures are warmer. A student asked if that meant rising temperatures cause more chirping, and the professor deadpanned that he thought cricket chirping caused temperatures to rise.

What our three scientists learned is if people believed they:

  • Gave about as much support as they got, higher overall levels of support at the time of the first interview decreased depression symptoms a year later, as you would expect.
  • Gave more support than they got, getting higher support had no effect one way or the other a year later.
  • Gave less support than they got, getting higher support increased depression symptoms.

Clearly it is better for all parties if people feel they are getting roughly as much emotional support as they are giving. Do not start parceling out your support based on how much you already give someone. Instead, Nahum-Shani, Bamberger, and Bacharach suggest “implementing employee support programs such as peer-based assistance programs” which would give people more opportunities to help others.

In a team setting, you could pair up people who seem to need more emotional support with others who need help in technical areas in which the first set have skills. Trading technical for emotional support might help the balance sheet. Also, when you recognize you are giving a lot of support to someone, find ways they can support you back. Perhaps you don’t really feel the need for someone’s ear when you hit a glitch in a project. But it might be worth asking for it anyway if you knew the other person had gone through the same thing. They, and your relationship, might benefit from their expressing sympathy for you.

Of course, there are people who will always demand more support than others. Almost everybody gets depressed on occasion, but science has identified genes that cause some people to be more susceptible. Unless you’re a doctor, you cannot cure them. In the U.S., it is probably illegal for a manager to even suggest that a worker might be one of those people or that they should get some help. Depression is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, so keep any conversations focused on harmful work behaviors, not possible causes.

Maybe you enjoy providing emotional support to others. Maybe you find it uncomfortable. Either way, human emotions are a major factor in the working world. They often are at the root of bias, bad decisions, conflicts, lost productivity, absences, and quitting. The best you can do, perhaps, is to keep your ears open for others when they need it. But sometimes, for their sake if not yours, you might need to open up about yourself.

Source: Nahum-Shani, I., P. Bamberger, and S. Bacharach (2011), “Social Support and Employee Well-Being: The Conditioning Effect of Perceived Patterns of Supportive Exchange,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 52(1):123.

No, Empowerment Does Not Create Conflict

I call it the “Baby with Bathwater Syndrome” (BWBS). Many of the objections I have heard to empowering teams, especially against self-directed teams, come from some example the objector raises of a team or company where it didn’t work. Then I start asking questions. Did the teams create charters, and the most vital components thereof? Were they given measurable goals to accomplish, into which they had input? Were they given enough authority and resources to accomplish the tasks assigned, including people, training, equipment and supplies? Did they…? Did they…?

Most often the answer to each is, “I don’t know.” When the person does know, I can point out several or many things the managers did wrong in implementing empowerment. Either way, the objector had thrown the baby—empowerment, which is consistently shown in studies to do good things—out with the dirty bathwater of mistakes. Instead those mistakes could have provided information to help empower the objector’s teams correctly.

This topic’s research reflects one of the frequent objections I hear, that empowered teams end up arguing so much, nothing gets done. The assumption is that empowerment caused the arguing. The fact that many empowered teams do not result in gridlock illustrates that empowerment is not the direct cause of the arguing, but this study provides better evidence.

Researchers first conducted an experiment using college students in China and the United States who answered questions about written scenarios involving a task force. Facts about the task force were changed for different people to compare the impact of certain factors. Then the scientists surveyed leaders and their team members in the working world using similar questions. The end results the scientists looked at were three outcomes managers should be interested in, shown here with example statements from the first study:

  • Innovative behaviors—“I would probably work to implement new ideas.”
  • Teamwork behaviors—“I would probably work to make sure the Task Force succeeds.”
  • Turnover intentions—“I would probably think about leaving this Task Force.”

In the field study of 105 team leaders and 386 of their direct reports, leaders’ ratings of their team members’ behaviors replaced self-reported statements for the first two. All of the second study’s wordings were changed to refer to the worker’s job. The first study was small, more of a pilot test, so I will focus on the second. That said, both in the lab and in the field, team empowerment was linked to the level of connection members felt with the teams and their senses of personal empowerment. In both studies higher levels of all correlated with lower desire to quit their jobs, and personal empowerment or connection was linked to the likelihood of innovation and teamwork.

The correlation between empowered leadership and personal conflict showed that when one was higher, the other was lower (–0.35). We can’t say whether an empowered leadership style led to lower conflict, or lower conflict made leaders more likely to adopt an empowered style. But we can definitely say empowerment did not cause conflict. An empowered style also correlated with higher innovation and teamwork behaviors. Of course, teams with higher levels of conflict were less likely to enjoy the positive effects of empowerment.

Individuals who were more group-oriented than individual-oriented (more “collectivist”) were less influenced by the leader’s empowerment style. However, whether a team or leader was Chinese or American or mixed did not impact the data, and the various factors were related in the same ways. To repeat a theme from other topics in this hypertext, people are more alike than different.

I should note that the study’s emphasis was on the interactions between all of the variables mentioned here. Some of the findings are too preliminary to act on. The “actionable” information for you, because it agrees with earlier studies, is that conflict is usually lower in empowered teams but reduces the positive effects of empowerment when present. “Managers who encounter moderate to high levels of relationship conflict in their work teams should thus seek to mitigate its effects on employees by developing a cohesive and supportive team environment among team members,” the study article says.

BWBS has its origins in at least two biases that infect our rational thought, from a list I’ve mentioned before: “Illusory correlation,” the false belief that two factors are linked when they are not; and the “law of small numbers,” the incorrect assumption that personal experiences or examples you’ve heard reflect the way things usually work. People who have seen conflicts or other problems in empowered teams assume empowerment caused the problems, when in fact other factors independent of empowerment caused them. And, they assume that because the empowered teams they know about had problems, most empowered teams have problems. As this study illustrates, neither is true. Based on my personal experiences with empowered teams, I could have stated many years ago they usually outperform those where the bosses make most of the decisions. Still, I did research to confirm what I thought was true—research that proved me wrong on other things, I’ll add. To touch on another theme, the scientists dong this topic’s studies were forced by their data to admit they were wrong about some ideas they had going into the study.

This leads to another bias that is the biggest problem in implementing an empowered leadership style. “Information avoidance” is defined as, “People’s tendency to avoid information that might cause mental discomfort or dissonance.” Every manager I have met who thought they had empowered their team really had not. None had asked for objective help to question their belief.

Source: Chen, G., et al. (2011), “Motivating and Demotivating Forces in Teams: Cross-Level Influences of Empowering Leadership and Relationship Conflict,” Journal of Applied Psychology 96(3):541–557.

Engagement and Job Satisfaction are Not the Same Thing

As you read articles about leadership, you soon come to understand that engaged workers are satisfied workers. If people are highly involved in their work, they like the job, right?

Probably, one study said. But wait—there’s more!

“Engagement is defined as a positive relationship with one’s work characterized by a sense of meaning, competence, and impact,” according to Gene Alarcon and Joseph Lyons of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. Earlier studies found it breaks down into three components, they say:

  • Vigor—”the abundance of energy such as mental resilience and persistence despite difficulties”
  • Dedication—”a sense of significance, enthusiasm, challenge, pride, and inspiration”
  • Absorption—”intense concentration and engrossment with work. When an individual is absorbed, time passes by quickly, and it is difficult to disconnect from one’s work.”

When first defined, scientists thought engagement was the opposite of burnout, and here we get the first reminder that assumptions can be wrong. Later research showed that greater workload demand increases engagement but lowers satisfaction, the authors report. You can be very engaged and end up burned out. This makes it reasonable to ask whether engagement and satisfaction are the same thing.

Alarcon and Lyons asked that by analyzing samples used in three previous studies. Two were of U.S. undergraduate students who also worked at least half-time. The third used responses from 394 full-time employees who had volunteered to be involved in online surveys. Each of these samples raises questions of how well the data applies to the average worker (its “external validity,” to use the scientific term). Obviously, college kids may be very different from all workers, and so might study volunteers with easy computer access and an interest in science, 74% white.

These samples were useful, though, because they had each taken three questionnaires that have been tested by different researchers and found to be good measures of:

  • Engagement’s components.
  • Job satisfaction—”how much one is fond of one’s job.”
  • Areas of work life (AWL)—perceptions of “workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values.”

The researchers randomly combined responses from the three samples into two big ones and performed factor analysis on the results. Factor analysis tests whether answers tend to clump together in predictable ways. Alarcon and Lyons found that engagement, satisfaction, and AWL showed up as three different patterns.

The authors write that engagement relates to the content of the work, while satisfaction relates to the position in which the work takes place. I regularly ask people if they like their jobs. Frequently I get the phrase, “I enjoy the work,” followed by a pause. They like the work, but not their manager or the company rules or something. Alarcon and Lyons give a clear example:

“The job is a specific instance of employment, such as a nurse in a specific hospital, in a specific position such as emergency room personnel. The work content comprises the actual duties one is performing, such as a nurse’s requirement to exhibit empathy, draw blood, and check on the general well-being of patients. In the nurse example, the nurse may not find much job satisfaction from the context but may be engaged with the work nonetheless.”

An engaged nurse may still switch to a different hospital or department. An excellent software developer I know, a hard worker with unique skills on his team, left a good company abruptly. Dissatisfaction with a manager or pay, or those AWL factors above, might lead to a job change without any change in engagement.

However, the three variables weren’t that different. For the most part, a study participant’s job satisfaction and engagement ratings lined up with ratings on the five factors of AWL. People with the same feelings about the level of fairness at their job site, for example, usually also reported the same levels of satisfaction and engagement. That pattern was not as clear, however, for the other four AWL factors. Confounding this discussion is that different components of engagement were involved depending on the AWL rating, but we don’t have room in this topicto go into that. Suffice to say it is dangerous to claim “engagement” impacts a measurement without asking, “Do you mean vigor, dedication, or absorption?”

The lesson is, just because everybody on your team works hard and voluntarily puts in long hours, that does not mean they are happy in their jobs. During the Great Recession a number of polls indicated that at least a third of U.S. workers intended to look for another job as soon as the economy turned around, while at the same time overall productivity (output per worker) was reaching new heights.

At the team level, do some serious workload planning and consider whether you really have the ideal number of people in the group. A project team I was working with got hit with a huge scope change. It spent six hours planning the next three months, with all members working late into the night. But the result was hard numbers allowing the team to go back to management and say, “We need help.” In this case the team leader was already working on it, an awareness which helps explain his team’s low turnover rate. The numbers still helped in the allocation of those new resources.

Hard workers are a good sign of job satisfaction, but not a perfect one. Do not assume that your co-worker’s “head down” dedication to the work equals her dedication to your team or company. And if someone claims that engagement will lead to higher job satisfaction, tell ’em “it ain’t necessarily so.”

Source: Alarcon, G., and J. Lyons (2011), “The Relationship of Engagement and Job Satisfaction in Working Samples,” The Journal of Psychology 145(5):463.

Managers Often Wrong about Team Coordination Needs

If you’re a top manager wondering why you can’t get more output from your workers, you might look into whether their teams can’t coordinate as needed 33 percent of the time.

The more cooperation required between two teams, the more methods they need to coordinate. This makes sense, and it was been supported by the data from research. One study says the methods needed rise in complexity with the level of coordination needed, of course, but in a fairly predictable way from the simplest up:

  1. Standard operating procedures are enough for two teams who don’t have to talk to do their work in compatible ways.
  2. Impersonal contacts like reports.
  3. Personal contacts between managers.
  4. Short-term task teams.
  5. Project teams.
  6. Matrix organizations, those which do most of their work using project teams with members from different functional teams.

The U.S. Department of Defense wanted to know if managers usually match up the right method of coordination with the task at hand. The department funded business researchers Daniel Sherman of the Univ. of Alabama-Huntsville and Robert Keller of the Univ. of Houston to find out. The resulting study mentioned above and published in Organization Science might help you raise productivity.

The 20 civilian units studied by Sherman and Keller were large by team standards, averaging 16 members each. So was their task. They created and ran a database for tracking “the location in real time of every weapon system, military vehicle, spare part, small arms, and associated equipment.” The database averaged around 500,000 entries weekly. The researchers used an appropriately complex mix of methods to get their data:

  1. One researcher spent 50 percent of his working time for four months observing the units like an anthropologist.
  2. With this background, he talked to the four division managers who oversaw the teams and came to agreements with each about how much the teams ought to be coordinating.
  3. The researchers interviewed each of the 20 unit managers to learn how much each thought their unit needed to coordinate with each other unit.
  4. The researchers put together a panel of experts—two Ph.D.’s and two people with 25-plus years in the industry—who determined what the best methods of coordination would be based on descriptions of the units.
  5. Interviews of the division and unit managers were used to reveal the actual coordination methods.
  6. Questionnaires of the 327 unit employees checked the amount and quality of communication between each pair of employees (that’s 53,301 pairs!).

The results were analyzed for each possible pair of teams (190). The results were sobering. In one-third of the pairs, a team manager underestimated how often their team needed to coordinate their work with the other team. Because of this, they provided too weak a method of coordination about one-third of the time. But those are just averages. In the case of organizations that should have had the most complex methods, such as project teams, three out of four managers were wrong. A few managers in that case thought, in effect, their teams could coordinate well enough by just following SOPs! The managers almost always underestimated the coordination required, not overestimating.

I’ll restate the methods and findings as a story. Hector and Shirley, managers of the Data Entry Unit and System Architecture Unit respectively, think they only need to communicate personally to coordinate the teams. But a panel of experts would tell them they really need to create a task force with members from each team to optimize the work. Because they don’t, pairs of employees on the separate teams don’t exchange as much information as they should. And because of that, there is a gap between the amount of coordination help their division managers says the teams should have, and the amount Hector and Shirley give them. Perhaps if Shirley’s system architects better understood the problems Hector’s data entry folks ran into by watching them work, the architects would make programming decisions that led to more efficient operations. Instead, Hector and Shirley exchange e-mails and think everything is fine.

Sherman and Keller propose some possible reasons for the problem. These tie in perfectly with the topic on behavioral operations that emphasized the harmful role mental shortcuts play in management. This study provides more examples.

Say the organization installed new workflow control software. Before then, passing the work back and forth was difficult, so the unit managers (or their predecessors) set up the process to have Team A do all its work before handing off to Team B. With the new software, the teams could be working on different steps of the same process at the same time. Unfortunately, their managers are stuck in their old “mental model” about how the process works and don’t stop to think about why it was set up that way.

Another example, the authors write, would be if customer requirements had changed. Engineers used to design a product and hand it off to the Manufacturing Department to figure out how to produce it. When speed-to-market became more important, R&D and manufacturing learned to work together from the start of the process, Sherman and Keller say. Some companies are taking longer than others. Like all humans, managers tend to reject new information that conflicts with their previously formed beliefs, as the authors state.

Also like all humans, many managers tend to take a simple approach to complex problems; after all, we can only retain and process so much information. Taken together, these mental shortcuts help explain why I teach about persuasion skills for “managing upward”: You have to break through those old mental models. The findings also explain why so many studies have shown that a group of people with relevant skills will make a better decision than a single expert given the same information. Multiple brains can process more information, and multiple perceptions are more likely to challenge old models.

Sherman and Keller say about their results, “a simple awareness of this phenomenon on the part of practicing managers can lead to corrective action so the proper modes (of coordination) are implemented.” They recommend, for example, creating diagrams of interactions between teams.

Now you are aware.

Source: Sherman, D., and R. Keller (2011), “Suboptimal Assessment of Interunit Task Interdependence: Modes of Integration and Information Processing for Coordination Performance,” Organization Science 22(1):245.

Money as Motivator: The Manager-Employee Gap

Pay, you’ve no doubt heard, is not the top employee motivator. But money does play a major role in ways that fact hides, as shown by a decades-old model of human motivation that got more support from a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). By coincidence, the survey also supports a discussion comment I made on motivational quotations, but first we go to psychology researcher Abraham Maslow.

You have probably come across his famous “Hierarchy of Needs” triangle from 1943. Maslow’s point was that some human needs take priority over others in affecting our behavior, in this order highest-to-lowest:

  1. Physiological—Food, water, air, etc.
  2. Safety—Security, both physical and of resources.
  3. Love/belonging—All varieties, including romantic and family.
  4. Esteem—Confidence and respect.
  5. Self-actualization—Morality and self-acceptance.

As I would say in my persuasion class, if someone’s financial security is under threat, there’s no point in appealing to their self-esteem. Your listener is focused on how to keep the money flowing and won’t hear anything else until the threat is resolved.

When I used to speak at events, most audience members realized pay is not a primary motivator for most workers, consistently coming in around #5 in surveys. The SHRM report, “2010 Job Satisfaction Report: Investigating What Matters Most to Employees,” concurs. Employees surveyed for it ranked “Compensation/pay” at #6 among items considered “very important” to job satisfaction. (Satisfaction and motivation are not the same thing scientifically, but I think there is enough overlap to treat them that way for this purpose.) Money still played a big role, however. Number 1 on the list was “Job security,” #2 was “Benefits,” and #4 was “Organization’s financial stability.” The company’s money matters in each, and each speaks to the bottom levels of Maslow’s triangle, ensuring you have the basics of life. Studies into happiness find that money can, in fact, buy it if you aren’t getting enough to eat. Only after the typical person has enough to cover basic needs, plus a bit left over, does extra money lose a lot of its power to motivate.

In case you’re wondering, the Great Recession does not appear to have played a factor in the survey. The results for job security and benefits have been fairly consistent since the earliest results presented, from 2002. (“Financial stability” was a new item in 2010.)

The report actually covered two groups of people, which leads to my discussion comment. One is a scientific sample of workers, based on all U.S. households with telephones (probably landlines), a total of 606 respondents. The other asked the same questions of a random selection of SHRM members who appeared to be working outside of academia, with 589 respondents.[2] One big difference emerged in comparing these groups. The HR folks thought “Relationship with immediate supervisor” was going to come in at #1 in importance, with 72% saying it was “Very important.” But it came in #7 for employees, with 48%. “Communication between employees and senior management” came in #3 for HR professionals (65%), but #8 for employees (47%).

I understand why HR folks would think manager relations are more important than employees say they are. As a member of SHRM at the time, I know these topics come up all the time. There’s nothing wrong with that: The results show these matters are very important to half the workforce. I just find it intriguing that the emphasis in HR-group presentations and related magazines cause HR reps to miss a critical fact. If people feel their basic needs are in jeopardy, they will put up with a bad boss and poor communications at least until the job market turns around. Those who aren’t confident about their chances in that market will stick around forever.

This can lead a bad boss to think everything is hunky-dory because nobody is quitting. I addressed this in a LinkedIn discussion focused on managers who use motivational quotes instead of solving the problems that are so demotivating. That creates a cynicism that makes later change efforts difficult. People think it’s the latest “feel-good” campaign and see no point in changing. As the first commenter, I gave an example from a study in which the rah-rah didn’t work, so the company went back and tackled its operational problems through training and coaching with marvelous results.

I won’t provide a link to the discussion to protect the very nice person who defended the use of motivational quotes. She said she had been sending them out regularly at the behest of a former manager and had nothing but positive comments. When comments in the discussion turned a bit negative, I jumped back in to tell her I was sure that was true. Unfortunately, based on my experience with teams, I told her I could almost guarantee the percentage of people who hated them was nearly as large as the supporters, and another bunch of recipients ignored them, some with annoyance. In addition to the genuine supporters, many of the nonsupporters would say positive things either for reasons of office politics or because they knew her intentions were good. The only way to know people’s true opinions would be to conduct an anonymous employee survey, I said (or arrange anonymous interviews, I could have added).

Whether you are trying to raise productivity or morale, you are probably using the wrong methods unless you have a means of getting objective information about what matters to your employees. The most cost-effective way to fix that is to skip the surveys and let the employees solve the issue. Tell them what the problem is and why it is a problem; ask them for the solution; and pledge to help them put that solution in place—even if you have your doubts about it. They’re going to have to implement the solution anyway, and you don’t have to motivate them when it’s their solution.

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[1] See “Tackle Goals One at a Time.”

[2] For my fellow statistics geeks, confidence level was reported at 96% with a margin of error around 4%.

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