Bill Sanders

By Bill Sanders

Countering the Effort Bias: Shifting from Effort to Outcomes in Managing Remote Teams

Countering the Effort Bias: Shifting from Effort to Outcomes in Managing Remote Teams 150 150 Bill Sanders

Photo by Curtis MacNewton on Unsplash

One of the most common biases that I run across when working with executives is their conscious, or sometimes unconscious, bias against hiring remote teams or individuals. Just last week I had a prospective client tell me that she was “100% against hiring remote employees.”

She’s not a client, yet, so I didn’t probe to find out what ideas and experiences shaped her attitude. However, based on my previous work, I’ll bet that when I do, I’ll find a combination of management techniques that failed, a lack of clarity and communication, and a culture that didn’t demand accountability.

In retrospect, one of the greatest gifts I had early on in my career was at Mattel Interactive. I was hired to lead a cross-functional e-commerce team, half of which was remote in Cedar Rapids, IA. Because I had never before managed a remote unit, I needed to improve my skill set immediately. Through mentors, reading, experimentation, and no small number of mistakes, I quickly learned how to manage an effective team when I didn’t know how, or even when, they were doing the work.

I took those lessons and leveraged them with the local half of the team as well. We weren’t doing anything considered radical at the time, but we were pushing responsibility and authority as close to the front line as possible. I’ve always appreciated and rewarded hard work, but I began to develop a bias for effectiveness and results that superseded any previous bias for effort.

Acknowledging Effort Bias

I regularly see a bias toward rewarding effort in many of our clients’ organizations. The culture rewards those that come in early, work late, and answer emails at 10 PM on the weekend-regardless of what they are actually accomplishing. This is especially true if said behavior is demonstrated by the C-Suite.

While effort is critical, it is not sufficient. To add real value to an organization, everyone has to make an effective impact that generates results well over and above their compensation package. Typically, the target return should be at least three times total compensation at a minimum.

This Effort Bias shows up in the questions I often hear client companies ask when someone requests to work remotely:

  • “How will I know they are putting in the time?”
  • “What is this going to do to productivity?”
  • “How am I going to manage the people I can’t see?”
  • “How are we going to ensure that remote team members stay connected and are part of our culture?”

Making the Shift

When you identify an Effort Bias, the first question is “What should replace it?” My recommendation is an Effectiveness Bias – for the following reasons:

1. It is easier and less time-consuming to judge the quality of a deliverable than to monitor a team member’s effort. When leaders take the time to define quality criteria in advance, organizations require less oversight and management. It puts the onus of performance on the one responsible for the final result: the person actually doing the work. It is a significant shift to go from telling someone “how to do it” to communicating what you expect the outcome to be.

2. A bias toward effectiveness forces the leader to define the objectives and communicate them clearly. Alignment around the objective is a crucial component of effective teams. Shared knowledge of what is expected and when it is expected is the first step. An Effectiveness Bias requires defining the “why” and even the “what” a team is endeavoring to achieve, but it doesn’t set the step-by-step of “how” the team should go about it. The added benefit of this approach is that it forces the executive team to think through and articulate the objectives and the metrics of how success will be measured.

3. Focusing on effectiveness over effort releases the team to be more creative. Because the step-by-step directions of “how” are not defined, processes can stay fluid and be subject to improvement instead of becoming straight-jackets of bureaucracy. And we’ve all experienced the exasperation of “process for process’ sake.” Focusing on outcomes and effectiveness frees individuals to experiment and improve on existing systems and policies.

4. Losing the Effort Bias requires transparent accountability. Elevating effectiveness over effort encourages individuals to become much better at making and keeping commitments; in short, self-management. To establish a virtuous cycle of ever-increasing effectiveness, providing timely and transparent feedback is critical. Individuals must know how effective they are being and how well they are keeping their commitments if they are to make the necessary changes to the How on their own.

It’s not easy bucking the established consensus. It’s not easy to recognize and replace our unconscious bias-especially in an organizational environment. But it is simple, and it is one of most explicit ways we can push more responsibility to be self-managed and responsive to the front line in our organizations.


Bill Sanders helps leaders and organizations adapt, grow and thrive in chaotic environments. He is Principal and Sr. Consultant with Roebling Strauss, an operational strategy consultancy that specializes in delivering dramatic improvements in organizational effectiveness, a Lead Link for Great Work Cultures, a community dedicated to creating a new norm for work cultures that optimize worker effectiveness and human happiness, and an Advisor to the C-Suite Network, the world’s most trusted network of C-Suite leaders.

Connect with Bill on Twitter at @technacea.