To improve people’s work, stay in the work context

As mentioned in a previous post, I have a general unease about bringing non-work related elements in order to improve a work-related situation.

Wellness activities at work, companies retreat, sponsored afterwork drinks, etc. A couple managements books I was reading lately helped me put this gut feelings into more intelligible words.

So what was my gut feeling about?

“Do we really have to do this?”

You’re in for a paintball with your colleagues. Are you willing to unleash your funny, super nasty self with them like you do with your friends? You went to a company ski “seminar”, actually that’s the first time you saw snow in your life. Wouldn’t you have shared this with a loved one instead? And did you really want to discover Mike-from-accounting when he’s drunk?

These management approach implies that in order to do a great job the employees have to open a part of their personal life, and even their privacy to their employer.

On the other side, are you going to miss out for your career if you don’t go paintball, don’t go for the drinks, don’t go skiing with them? So you went, with that lingering feeling: “do we really have to do this?”.

Here’s my first unease: aren’t we forcing one’s work & life balance for the sake of “happiness at work”?

“The truth is in the cheese”

they say. I would transpose this into “what is in the work is what makes the performance”. So why are we looking elsewhere to solve work problems? Isn’t a failure of work management if we have to go outside of work to get the job done?

Now I had these gut doubts, but several authors I digged into lately such as Yves Morieux, Daniel Pink or Isaac Getz went to my rescue to draw a more clear-cut principle

You only change the way people work by changing the work itself
corollary of

Introducing non-work related elements doesn’t really change the way people work

The authors hints:

A more pleasant job is motivating by itself

My friend works in a design agency. a year ago, the general manager realized that designers where unhappy so he created Friday afterwork drinks. I’ve been invited. Free flow, karaoke, good stuff.

As you guess, this didn’t change anything, because people were rational in disliking the work. Stress from last minute rush and unrealistic deadlines were the normal way of business. Too many jobs were half-assed and designers had to endure disgruntled clients. Exhausted, they made more mistakes and creativity was damped. Final note, their personal time was basically spent resting from work, so none of them had much of a life beside work.

The designers didn’t need to be pumped up for the company, they just wanted a job that doesn’t suck. My friend left.

Baseline: you don’t restore people lost motivation by bringing the like of free drinks, offsite weekends and in-house yoga session. You restore their motivation by changing something that makes the job less taxing.

Reference: The fallacies of hard+soft approach in “6 Simples Rules” by Yves Morieux

Improving your competence is its own reward

People feel good just by feeling more competent and capable at what they do. Think about the best waitress you know. Does it feel like they’re doing it for any other reason that getting the job done well.

Reference: Daniel Pink describes in his book Drive how evidence and experiments proves that increasing your autonomy and mastery is an effective incentive, while external incentives like financial rewards are actually counter-productive (good luck accepting this controversial belief).

We just like to do our job better.

Reference: “Drive” by Daniel Pink, “6 Simple rules” by Yves Morieux, “Freedom Inc.” by Isaac Getz

Trust at work is better built through work collaboration

When you played together with a colleague at a company fun activity, it doesn’t mean you find this person more competent at her job. I had a colleague, Djamel, who was an absolute trash talker at poker, very fun player to have at the table, fair looser or fair winner, and not a bad one. I trust his ability to make any game a good time. Do I want to see that at work? Nope. (thankfully Djamel at work is a very acute mind with a way more subtle side).

People build trust after they work together and found their cooperation mutually beneficial. We build trust through the work.

Reference: somewhere in rule 1 of “6 simples rules” from Yves Morieux

To help people, understand their work

If you ever seen “Undercover boss” reality show, here’s 80% of the baseline:

Boss experience field work and realize the policies from the organisation headquarters are bogus for what employees have to face in their stores. Also boss find absolute gems of employees who solve every day a tremendous amount of problems she had no clue about, then still manage to get the train on time and the clients delighted.

There’s no point implementing any organizational principle and theories on people before you understand what is their work, what is it that they do and what is their day to day goal in reality.

Reference: the Genba principle from Lean, 2nd rule of “6 Simple Rules” by Yves Morieux

Takeaway: stay lazy, no need to look elsewhere

This resonates a lot with my past experience as coach and consultant.

When approaching a situation to improve -usually I’m first told by my client before I get a sense of it myself- have a sense of the scope of the problem as described, and be wary of solutions that actually extends this scope. It is tempting to add that new happy disruptive practice, that new psychology angle you just red from the latest book that triggered you, but it’s just adding complexity to the problem. Changing something or removing something is usually way more influential than adding something.

Most times, a great solution is within the problem or in its direct vicinity.

Tags: 6 Simple Rules, Agile, Agile Coaching, Agile Management, Complexité, Contrôle, Drive the book, Drivers, Freedom Inc., Radical Candor, Systémique