By Steve Kelman
In my last blog post, I noted that the idea of using performance measures as a way to motivate employees to meet challenging goals is the most underused performance-improvement tool federal managers have. I promised I would share some further research findings. This topic has been well researched by scholars (led by Gary Latham of the University of Toronto and Ed Locke of the University of Maryland).
So here goes:
1) Although attaching a monetary award to achievement of a goal motivates greater improvements in performance, the motivating role of a challenging goal occurs even without monetary award. This is particularly relevant in government, where the ability to give such contingent monetary rewards is often lacking.
2) The most motivating goals are neither too easy (if they are easy to achieve, they don’t motivate) nor impossible (people will give up, and not be motivated). The most effective goals are moderate “stretch goals.”
3) One exception to the rule that performance goals are the best way to motivate is if a person is trying to learn a new task they can’t already do. In such cases, learning goals (trying some number of new strategies) motivate better than performance goals for doing the task.
4) There was a debate for a number of years between two scholars about whether it was necessary for employees to participate in establishing the goals in order for them to be motivating. The scholars finally agreed on an experiment to settle the dispute, and here’s what they found: for goals to motivate, employees must buy in to them, but participation in goal-setting is only one of the ways to get employee buy-in.
All right, given we’re talking furloughs in the government, I suspect it’s not the greatest time to be discussing motivating federal employees. I am writing about this topic now only because it came up in executive education at the Kennedy School. But improving the performance of our organizations is the best contribution feds can make to reduce the likelihood of furloughs. Performance improvement, in an important sense, gets to the root of the discontent with government that ends up producing things like furloughs.
Posted on Feb 15, 2013 at 2:19 PM1 comments
When I teach about the use of performance measurement to improve government performance, one of the central ways I suggest managers and leaders use the metrics is through their ability to motivate employees to work toward a goal.
That challenging goals motivate people to perform better has been supported in hundreds of research studies. An article a number of years ago in the Academy of Management Executive showed that it's tied for the best-established research finding in the human resources literature.
Probably the most dramatic example in the history of organizations of the use of a stretch goal to motivate better organizational performance comes from government – John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech establishing the goal of getting people to the moon and safely back, to be achieved within a decade. When Kennedy made the speech, we had launched an astronaut 115 miles above the Earth. Going to the moon meant sending astronauts 270,000 miles from home, and then bringing them back the same distance.
I have recently been involved in a research project interviewing Obama administration subcabinet agency heads, and the interview questions have included ones about how (if at all) they are using performance measurement to manage their organizations. Overall, the way that these top leaders are personally involved in performance measurement is impressive.
However, very few of the executives have spontaneously mentioned that motivating employees was one way they were using performance measurement to improve organizational performance. Even when asked specifically, many have acknowledged they haven’t done this much.
This is a low-cost way to improve agency performance that appears to be really underutilized.
This week we have a new (sequestration-anticipation diminished!) crop of senior career managers in an executive education program at the Kennedy School. I’ve been teaching them performance measurement this week, and one of the questions I asked the participants was whether any of them had used performance measures to motivate their employees. One response (from a manager at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) was particularly interesting, so I wanted to share it with blog readers.
He said his organization had been using measuring turnaround time on processing a certain element of their workload measured in number of actions in queue – it was at the time, I believe, more than 40,000. But then somebody realized that this number was close to meaningless for frontline employees. So it was decided instead to express the same data in a very different way – how much time did it take for actions in queue to be processed. The answer was that this 40,000 backlog number translated into an average processing time of 4 years.
That was a number people could understand – and, frankly, be shocked (and goaded) by. Suddenly understanding how long the actual wait times were made the staff much more motivated to reduce backlogs, which (with the help of other business process changes) went down significantly over the next few years.
Improvements like this cost no money, only dedication, ingenuity, and – in this case – the realization that a performance metric needs to be expressed in a motivating way as part of an effort to use it to motivate.
In my next blog post I’ll write some more about what the research literature says about using challenging goals to motivate better performance.
Posted on Feb 13, 2013 at 2:19 PM2 comments
In a number of columns I've written over the years, I have criticized the idea held by many non-academics that scholarly research in general — and research on organizations and management in particular — merely establishes the obvious.
I came across a paper recently in the Academy of Management Journal — the leading outlet for scholarly empirical research on organizational behavior — that would certainly fit into the category of research that does not establish the obvious.
The finding? A team's ability to innovate is enhanced by having some team members who are conformists. The paper, titled "The Effect of Conformists and Attentive-to-Detail Members on Team Innovation: Reconciling the Innovation Paradox," was written by Ella Miron-Spektor, an organizational psychologist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and two Israeli colleagues. It examines work teams at a large Israeli defense company — so it's not lab research using college undergrads — that are charged with developing advanced technologies in areas such as microelectronics and communications.
The authors asked members of different teams about each member's cognitive style. In particular, the researchers asked questions to tap members' creative and conformist orientations. For creativity, people were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as "I have a lot of creative ideas" and "I prefer tasks that enable me to think creatively." To measure what the authors call conformity, they asked questions such as "I try not to oppose team members" and "I adapt myself to the system."
The authors also asked group supervisors (using an established research method) to divide 100 points among four levels of innovation that their teams had attained on their projects as a whole, ranging from "duplicating existing technologies" (the lowest) to "developing breakthrough technologies based on fundamentally new concepts or principles" (the highest). Using that scale, each team received a "radical innovation" score.
Not surprisingly, the researchers found that the higher the percentage of creatives on a team, the higher the team's supervisor-designated radical innovation score. However, having a higher proportion of conformists in a group also promoted radical innovation. The effect was non-linear: Moving from a below-average percentage of conformists on a team (compared with all the teams in the sample) to an average proportion dramatically increased a team's radical innovation score. But moving from an average proportion to a significantly above-average one produced only a small further increase in radical innovation.
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The study found evidence for two ways conformists help teams become more innovative. The more conformists on a team, the higher the team's perception of its own potency (i.e., its ability to accomplish its tasks), and team potency was associated with the ability to be innovative. And the more conformists on a team, the better the team did at implementing its creative ideas.
A general lesson in all this — and one that is associated with the work of recently deceased team management scholar Richard Hackman — is that managers tend to pay too much attention to team processes and not enough attention to setting up a team for success before it begins work, including choosing the right mix of skills and temperaments for team membership.
And specifically in this situation, it is intuitive to think that if you want a creative team, the main thing you need to do is get a lot of creative people on it. This fascinating research suggests that to keep the ship moving forward, the tempestuous seas of creativity should be tempered by the ballast of conformity.
Posted on Feb 08, 2013 at 2:19 PM2 comments