I believe that everyone comes to work every day to do his or her best. Sometimes life and work can get in the way, but I believe that in general, when people are given a chance to “do good” they step up to the challenge.
I didn’t always think this way. In all of my years of observing the way organizations went about improving performance, management consistently placed the blame on employees as the primary reason for poor performance. Their “bad attitudes” or unwillingness to change or learn were often sighted as barriers to improvement.
But about 15 years ago, I went on sabbatical to travel the world. Across Europe and throughout Central America, I spent the better part of three years relying on the kindness of strangers who time and again gave me rides, invited me into their homes and let me into their lives for no other reason than their own desire to help me.
One particularly memorable situation was when I found myself in literally unfriendly territory in Bosnia. A stranger concerned for my safety not only provided help and direction, but also treated me to dinner and insisted on paying for my hotel stay.
What crystallized for me during my travels was the idea that people had an innate desire to do good. As I mentioned earlier, this realization was in stark contrast to what I had been taught early in my career. Every organization experiences performance issues that reveal weaknesses in their capability. But this contrast in perspectives got me thinking, if people’s tendency is to do good, then why do businesses underperform?
In my experience, it boils down to two things. First is a lack of focus that fuels dysfunction, waste and employee apathy. The good news is that even without direction people are still driven to achieve things, to make some kind of headway. You see this happening all the time, people being tasked to arbitrarily create their own goals and working to achieve them, even if they are in conflict with another business function’s goals or the over arching goals of the business.
The bad news is that without a unifying focus and strategy, addressing shortcomings in management, service levels, quality, promotion and infrastructure with disparate quick fixes won’t sustain performance gains for long.
Why not? At the root of most operational pain points is a fundamental disconnect between the organization’s purpose, the business model through which it demonstrates its value to the marketplace and its overarching growth strategy. In particularly troubled organizations, these elements of the business aren’t clear or even widely known across the employee base. Chronic performance issues are a sign that the existing purpose, business model and strategy may no longer even be relevant to market realities.
To put this scenario back into a travel context, this kind of misalignment is like being lost. Not knowing where North is, any details about your environment or why its worth exploring and you’re not headed in any particular direction, or to any particular destination. Under these circumstances, its easy to see why you wouldn’t be getting anywhere and your travel companions would get frustrated – let alone anyone who has to follow you.
The second reason I feel that despite good intention organizations don’t achieve the kind of success they’re after is that often they’ve only been looking at half of the performance equation. Only addressing the structures and activities related to their operation without also considering the behaviors and attitudes that underpin related processes and influence your culture.
Though some organizations understand aspects of employee motivation, or how an organization’s values play into it’s structure and activities, what too many don’t consider are how changes in structures and activities affect behaviors and attitudes – which in essence is how people feel about their work and how they go about doing it.
If performance isn’t where it should be, consider how aligned the organization is to its mission, the relevancy of its business model. How well the organization is aware of its purpose and value. But most importantly, how often its focus has been on process versus its people.