C-Suite Network™

Creating Dysfunction, Instead of Engagement, in Three Easy Steps

What if your leadership strategies were damaging performance of your team and you didn’t even know it?

Samuel Johnson once said, fraud dreads examination but truth invites it. In 2010, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority was dreading the next steps in the investigation on safety inspections. In a Wall Street Journal report, the MTA admitted that their workers often failed to do the required tests and maintenance on its subway signals. Furthermore, managers failed to properly manage the workers and failed to put processes in place to prevent them from filing the false reports.

Although the officials could not identify any accidents that may have resulted from the lack of inspection, this dysfunction is serious. Proper functioning signals will prevent delays and PREVENT ACCIDENTS. Proper functioning signals will stop a train if an operator misses a red light.

More recently, Wells Fargo fired over 5,000 employees because of a sales scandal. The bank leadership has claimed that the employees acted alone in opening 1.5 million false bank accounts and 565,000 fraudulent credit cards on behalf of its customers. The truth is the bank leadership created an environment which encouraged the fraud. (Lindzon, 2016)

What would cause a worker to commit fraud on something so important and avoiding accidents or to sell customers false accounts? Workers submitting false reports put passengers, the MTA, and themselves in danger. What would cause workers to be so dysfunctional? Three simple steps can easily do it:

1. Set stretch numerical goals beyond capabilities
2. Hold people accountable to those goals
3. Rely on inspection to catch errors

Many organizations set stretch numerical goals that are often beyond employee capabilities. This causes employees to take short-cuts. This is exactly what the MTA workers and the Wells Fargo sales people did. For the MTA, most of the problems occurred on the highest traffic areas because high traffic makes it much more difficult to do maintenance. Workers needing to dodge trains to ensure their own safety during the inspection tasks. Furthermore, the tasks of inspection and maintenance are arduous and complex.

For the Wells Fargo employees, the pressure to meet unrealistic goals was unbearable. There were constant conference calls and meetings to find out the status of the goals. Employees were told, “I don’t care how you reach the goals, just do it.”

Many organizations attempt to hold people accountable to overly challenging tasks or goals without knowing what the outcome will be. This is exactly what the MTA did. This creates dysfunction because it forces workers to either make short-cuts or to choose nefarious actions. They are often willing to do anything to relieve the pressure. They must achieve what management expects or risk being criticized for not doing their job, receive a lower performance evaluation rating, or worse. This is not the only place where this dysfunction plays out. Our high school (and college) students admit succumbing pressure to perform by cheating. Depending upon the study, 80-95% of students admit to surrendering to the cheating option.

Inspection is important but not as a way to ensure compliance. Inspection should be used to uncover important knowledge about how to improve the processes. It should not be used as a club to threaten employees with punishment. According to the article, the MTA’s inspector general looked for those individuals responsible for falsifying the reports. I wonder how much truth he/she will get with that approach.

Why not develop engagement instead? What should the MTA and Wells Fargo management teams do to improve safety, reduce costs and improve maintenance quality, and increase sales? The short answer is to engage the workers in creating the solutions and stop trying to catch them doing things wrong. Here are a few basic steps:

• Engage the workers to help improve the processes while helping them to feel safe and helping improve their productivity. Make it safe for them to tell the truth without fear of reprisal.
• Take their recommendations and fix their processes.
• Stop using inspection as a club and start using it to increase the knowledge to improve the processes again.
Are you creating dysfunction and then looking for the offenders so you can hit them with the inspection club? Stop. It’s hurting everyone. It is not leadership. It is dysfunction in three easy steps.

Wally Hauck, PhD has a cure for the “deadly disease” known as the typical performance appraisal. Wally 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. Wally is a Certified Speaking Professional or CSP. Wally has a passion for helping leaders let go of the old and embrace new thinking to improve leadership skills, employee engagement, and performance.


Wally Hauck, PhD, CSP
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