We have two dogs and a cat in our family.   The dogs are always hungry and if we leave anything on the floor or drop anything by accident they will devour it.  They are normal.

When we first got them we already had our cat and we were used to leaving the cat food on the floor.  Once the dogs arrived that proved a big mistake. Any leftover cat food was devoured when we weren’t watching. 

When I fed the cat I had to watch carefully and scold the dogs if they attempted to eat her food once the cat was finished.  It was a waste of my time and I was often annoyed because the dogs just didn’t seem to learn the command, “NO CAT FOOD FOR YOU!”

It finally dawned on me that I could feed the cat on top of the washer in the laundry room.  She could easily jump up and I could leave it out in case she wanted to finish later. It was out of reach of the dogs.  I realized the cat food on the floor created an environment that encouraged poor behavior.  It’s the very nature of a dog to eat food available.  By changing the system of feeding the cat the bad behavior stopped.  I could trust the dogs again.  I stopped yelling at them. My relationship with them improved.  They trusted me more.  They didn’t shirk away whenever I came into the room.

As leaders we can often set people up for failure and unknowingly create opportunities for bad behavior.  Our decisions and policies can create an environment that increases the probability of poor behavior and then act surprised and even punish the employee when they behave poorly.  Performance appraisals and Pay for Performance are two examples of policies and practices that often unwittingly create an environment of dysfunction. 

Performance Appraisals

Performance appraisals damage employee engagement.  They can often create fear and anxiety in both managers and employees and therefore naturally encourage bad behaviors.  Employees feel anxiety because of the probability of being criticized.  The typical appraisal requires the manager assign a rating or grade to the employee.  The thought that the grade may be lower than expected, or less than deserved, creates anxiety.  Managers also feel the anxiety   When they need to grade the employee either an “average performer”, or a “below average performer” they often avoid that to prevent conflict. They shirk their responsibility by either delaying the meeting or avoiding it al together.    

An environment of anxiety can encourage this bad behavior.  Managers stop doing their jobs and employees hide mistakes or manipulate the achievement of goals to assure a higher rating.  

Pay for Performance

Pay-for-performance is coercion and coercion damages employee engagement.  Pay-for-performance attempts control behavior and sends subtle message, “We don’t trust you to do the right thing and we don’t think you will work hard unless you have a reward.” 

Studies by Deci and Ryan have shown how typical pay-for-performance schemes can backfire.   The purpose of offering a reward for certain behaviors or outcomes is to create motivation.  According to numerous studies over the past 50 years the opposite occurs.  Those coerced with incentives end up less interested in the activity once the reward is removed.  They stop performing when no one is looking and when no reward is offered.

Rewards can also encourage cheating. Employees who know their pay is determined by goal achievement can be tempted to manipulate the results. A recent study by the New York Regents exam board is a good example.  Teachers who are evaluated based on the number of students who pass the Regents exams manipulated the scores to allow those students missing the passing grade by a point or two to pass anyway.  The statistics showed an enormous bulge of scores right on the passing line which could not be explained by normal statistical variation.

Just as I continued to yell at the dogs for their poor behaviors, leaders cling to policies that create dysfunction and they blame the employees for the poor behaviors.  Isn’t it time we “put the food up on the washer” and stop these dysfunctions?  Wouldn’t it save us time as leaders?  Wouldn’t it improve our relationships and the performance of the organization?  Wouldn’t new processes that avoid these dysfunctions improve employee engagement?

Wally Hauck holds a doctorate in organizational leadership from Warren National University, a Master of Business Administration in finance from Iona College, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. He is a Certified Speaking Professional and for 15 years his consulting firm, Optimum Leadership, has consulted with dozens of organizations and coached hundreds of individuals in improving leadership skills to boost employee engagement and performance.
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