Monday, October 17, 2011

Progress: Do you hinder or help it?

I recently read an article from the Harvard Business Review (May 2007) by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer entitled Inner Work Life: Understanding the Subtext of Business Performance.  The premise of the argument was that all employees have a continuous inner work life playing in their heads while at work, “a constant stream of emotions, perceptions, and motivations.”  This line of consciousness (or in some cases sub-consciousness) reacts to the events at work and directly affects an employee’s performance. 
The authors contend that there are two things managers do, or don’t do, that influence this inner work life, thus affecting an employee’s performance, including their creativity, commitment, collegiality, and productivity.  They aren’t what you probably think at first; they aren’t pats on the back, verbal or written praise, monetary rewards, etc.  No.  They are, “enabling people to move forward in their work and treating them decently as human beings.”  

How often are these truly the two behaviors managers focus on most?  More often managers provide evaluation, constructive (or non-constructive) criticism, and direction.  They are either super hands off or a micro-manager.  They require meeting attendance, whether productive or not.  They set deadlines, sometimes unrealistic, and expectations, also sometime unrealistic.  They hoard control, squelch creativity, or procrastinate decision-making. You get the point.  Admittedly not all managers are like this, at least not completely, but it is likely that most managers do something (or several things) that hinder progress, rather than enable it.   It’s likely that managers are oblivious to this yet unlikely that employees will feel comfortable enough to point it out.  But, if managers want to improve employee creativity, strengthen commitment, foster collegiality, and enhance productivity then they’ll take some serious time to reflect on how often they hinder, versus help, progress.

Why is enabling progress important? The obvious reason is that it moves the organization closer to achieving its goals.  The less obvious reasons are the affects it has on employees’ inner work life.  As the author’s stated, employees have increased job satisfaction and perform better when they feel like the boss enables progress towards their goals. In contrast, employees who feel their bosses hinder progress are more likely to believe their boss doesn’t value their work, is undermining their work intentionally, or is simply incompetent.

So what can the manager do to enable employee progress at work?  Several things, such as:
·         Provide clear goals and eliminate ambiguity
·         Eliminate long (pointless) meetings, especially when employees are under severe deadlines
·         Provide genuine feedback, opportunities for reflection, and a focus on learning not just evaluation.
·         Ask employees what they need to accomplish tasks
·         Ensure employees have adequate resources, including time, to complete the tasks.

One more point, I focused on the first of the two behaviors Amabile and Kramer suggested managers do to positively affect inner work life.  But, the second should not be overlooked:  treat employees as human beings.  I’m not going to go into detail on this one; I hope it’s self explanatory.  I do however encourage managers to pause and reflect on whether they truly do this.  Do they recognize that employees have lives outside of work?  Do they see employees as people and not just cogs in a machine?  As the authors mentioned, people are working more hours than ever before, thus life outside of work is getting smaller and smaller; all the more reason to ensure employees feel appreciated, valued, and respected while at work.  As managers, we have the opportunity to have a profound impact on a person’s enjoyment of work as well as their overall quality of life.  Please don’t take this lightly. 

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