June 14, 2006

The One-Minute "Who Moved My Parachute?" - A blog about management

In one of my future hypothetical realities, I write business books. Not technical trade manuals, but books about management. Books that help people motivate their employees.

This genre is rife with wretched writing. (Has anyone actually read Who Moved My Cheese? That's 20 minutes of my life I'm never getting back!) Some are so abstract that they're impossible to follow. Others crash down the slippery slope into self-help melodrama.

When my insightful, funny, highly readable business books hit the market, the joyless middle managers won't know what hit 'em. At business conferences, I'll be more popular than PowerPoint. I'll be the toast of the BlackBerry set. Quotations from me will be thumbtacked onto cubicle walls everywhere.

Hey, it's my daydream.

In order to achieve this, of course, I'll need some fresh ideas (yes, I could just repackage existing ideas and call them something like Fish! Warmed Over, but too many business authors have done that already).

I have one that I've been working on in my head. This is my first attempt to write it down, so please bear with me. I realize that the title is a little cerebral, so it can't carry an entire book. To actually get published, I'll have to come up with some metaphor about seafood or cheese or parachutes... except that those have already been taken.


Here goes.

The Cognitive Dissonance Theory of Employee Motivation

Even if you've never heard of cognitive dissonance, you're already familiar with the concept.

It's what happens when you experience something that just doesn't fit with your ideas or beliefs.

Imagine that you spent your life savings on a custom-built dream house. After moving in, you realize that the kitchen layout is awkward, the gorgeous bathroom tile you picked out is too cold for your feet, and morning traffic has tripled the length of your commute.

Cognitive dissonance is the difference between your expectations and your actual experience. Nobody can live like this for long. You have two options:

1. Abandon your original vision of the dream house and stick a "For Sale" sign on the lawn.

2. Change your behaviors (cook more efficiently, wear slippers in the bathroom, leave for work an hour earlier) so that your actual experience matches your original dream house vision.

Unless the house is ridiculously defective, most people will choose option 2. They will also rationalize their behavior ("I love being a morning person!") and not even notice that they have changed themselves in the process.

So, what does any of this have to do with employee motivation?

Cognitive dissonance is usually an internal, individual experience. But what if there is dissonance between two people, an employee and a manager?

Favorable Dissonance

When I started my job at the payroll company, I was a 22-year-old, clueless, recovering journalist who (in my own mind) had no business filing anybody's tax returns.

However, I had a boss who seemed to think I was the most brilliant tax representative she had ever met. She signed me up for projects, enlisted my help with presentations to upper management, and assured me that, someday soon, I would make a great supervisor.

My manager's expectations of me were higher than my own. Dissonance. I had to resolve it. I could either convince her that she had overestimated me, or I could rise to the occasion and be the employee she already thought I was.

Most people will resolve cognitive dissonance in the way that it most beneficial to themselves. It's not a bad thing. It's our self-preservation instinct.

I couldn't stand the thought of disappointing my boss, so I jumped in. I worked harder. I signed up for classes outside of work. I forgot that payroll wasn't a field that originally interested me. I filled in the gaps between my boss's perception and my version of reality.

I was so motivated that I didn't even notice the changes in myself. That is, until I was promoted to supervisor and decided it was time to create the same experience for others.

Unfavorable Dissonance

Manager/employee dissonance is as strong as a weapon. It can spark an employee's best performance, or it can destroy it in one fell swoop.

Imagine working for a boss who is oblivious to your skills and potential. Maybe it's not even your direct boss, but someone up the corporate ladder has decided that you're lazy, have a bad attitude, or are just plain mediocre.

At first, you might scramble to make your talents known. You might speak up in meetings, volunteer for extra assignments, do anything you can to get on the manager's good side.

Sometimes, that just doesn't work. Sometimes, it backfires. Some managers look down on employees who appear too ambitious - even though those employees are just trying to resolve a very real and reasonable dissonance.

When you're stuck with unfavorable dissonance, there are, again, two choices. You can dismiss your boss's opinion as entirely irrelevant (this usually requires finding a new boss), or you can allow your own performance to slide until it matches his or her perception. If your boss already thinks you're lazy, why not buy housewares on e-Bay or sneak out early on Friday?

Bridging the Gap

In an ideal world, managers would hand-pick their teams and only select employees for whom they felt favorable dissonance, or no dissonance at all.

Unfortunately, corporate restructurings and organizational changes are a fact of life, and managers seldom choose all of their subordinates. As a result, many employees languish in situations of unfavorable dissonance, watching their own motivation decline until their actual performance matches the low standards (unknowingly) set by their managers.

How can your company reap the motivation that comes from favorable cognitive dissonance?

1. Acknowledge the inevitability of bias and dissonance in management. Many managers claim to treat every employee equally, even though this is practically impossible. Policies can be administered equally, but the nuances of manager-employee relationships always contain subjectivity. They are, after all, human relationships.

2. Promote managers who tend to see the best in others. For some people, this is a natural gift. For others, it is a skill that can be learned (for more information on Monica Wiant Manager Training Seminars, see the back of this book). It should be a critical component of your hiring and training procedures.

3. Change the relationship before giving up on the person. Employees who struggle with one manager are often "black-listed," stuck in their position until they quit or get fired for poor performance. Before punishing an employee, try pairing that person with a new manager or mentor who might have a favorable dissonance effect. Remember to pay attention not only to immediate employee/manager relationships, but also to managers higher up the corporate ladder.

4. Create a culture in which it is acceptable to talk about dissonance. This is the bookend to Step One. Now that you have acknowledged that employee/manager relationships are inevitably biased, and that motivation comes from favorable dissonance, teach your employees what you have learned. Make self-evaluations and open discussions about manager and employee perceptions part of your corporate culture. If you don't know how to approach this, schedule one of my seminars. Your employees will thank you.

No comments: