Put yourselves into the shoes of an employee: A lethal pandemic has hit the World. Your business and political leaders have no clues how to react to it. A wind of panic blows… You are faced with a “Cornelian Choice”: Do I report sick or “at risk” so as to protect my life and my family from infection or do I respond to my sense of Mission and report to my job, be it a hospital, supermarket, food factory, transportation company, cleaning and laundry etc.?
And many were the heroes who chose to serve the public interest and did their best to preserve their families. In Italy, more than 200 retired Medical Doctors, who had volunteered to come back and fight the Pandemic, died from their generosity and civic sense!
Think of those amazing business examples: A plant working with 60% of its people but producing an output never reached before of 200%, another plant working with far less than the necessary “blue collars” where “white collars” volunteered to replace the absentees, another chemical company who beat all of their possible indicators (financial, production, health & safety), with people fully motivated as the top team had committed not to lay off and had accepted to drastically reduce their own salaries to protect the low earners…
As an employee, you would have a legitimate feeling of pride: You put yourself and your family at risk, you took initiatives, you worked harder than ever before, you went out of your way to support fallen colleagues, you over-performed and… HR and your bosses come and talk to you about objectives setting for 2021! Decency prohibits me to share here the sort of reaction I’d have but you would know how I react when I feel insulted, patronized and disappointed.
Clay Shirky’s old TED talk (here is just the extract I am referring to) gives us an overview of what happens when people are requested to play the game by the rules of a regulation instead of being trusted, respected and in charge of demonstrating their civic sense. And this is why getting back to measures and objectives would be totally counterproductive in the (post) Covid Economy:
In Haifa (Israël) the authorities wanted to rein in parents who would regularly come late to pick their children from kindergarten. In order to incentivize a timely pick-up, they announced that parents picking their kids late would find the corresponding fine on their monthly invoice. What happened? The number of defaulting parents went… up as they took this as a deal rather than a civic gesture (I can come late if I pay the fine as opposed to “Those poor childminders deserve a break. They also have a life and a family, let’s discharge them on time). Setting objectives to people who doubled production with almost half of their peers present will have a similar effect: “Oh we are back to business as usual? Let’s stop taking initiative, let’s put our brains at rest and follow the procedures since that is what they want!”
Stop Objectives Setting, cancel yearly assessments and start permanent feedback!
- Stop objectives Setting: Healthcare workers, supermarkets employees, blue collar in so many industries which maintained our quality of life during the lockouts went back to work because they had and lived a strong sense of Mission! The sole valid objective in times of uncertainty and disruption, should be “Do what you think needs to be done (in order to fulfil our Mission).” Setting objectives in a VUCA environment is illusory. Military commandos have a Mission to fulfil and that matters more than objectives (remember the fantastic interview of ex Marines leader Lt General van Riper) which will change as the context will evolve.
- Cancel yearly assessments: It comes as no surprise that an increasing number of large and established organisations are dropping the end of year, time-consuming and not necessarily useful yearly assessment. They come too late (why wait until the end of the year to provide feedback?), rarely address the issue (we all know stories of employees getting a high performer grade from not courageous bosses who suddenly get in trouble when a honest leader takes over) and may create frustration and negative feelings (a large Swiss bank in which I worked upon completing my MBA had noticed that the bulk of resignations was coming in the 3 months following assessments and promotions).
- Start offering permanent feedback: Feedback is a waste of time when it is a yearly process. On the contrary, when fully integrated into the culture and routinely given/welcomed, regardless of hierarchy, it becomes crucial into developing a relational and progressive culture. Apps such as Impraise already exist which enable everyone in an organisation, to provide timely and continuous feedback to each other.
This may seem a bit of a radical approach. But the Disruption Economy, followed by the Covid Pandemic are calling for us to challenge our long held orthodoxies. Patronizing our people after the amazingly mature, engaged and committed attitude they had during the (first) Covid Wave will be highly counterproductive. Recognizing them for that is not just a matter of bonus nor financial rewards. It is about showing them the Trust they earned, on the battlefield.