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Positive Influence Requires Positive Interactions: Part I

Employee Engagement, Total Rewards Cultures, Emotional Intelligence, Six Sigma, Lean Principles, Employee Empowerment and many other initiatives all attempt to systematically explore employee intelligence and experience. Each initiative's processes and principles is grounded in the importance of people. The key objective of each initiative is to channel that value into improved organizational effectiveness.

Though these initiatives and others have been fashionable for years, widely implemented, and publicized as promoting pro-people values, approximately 48% of American employees leave their jobs because they don't like their supervisor. Between 70 and 80% of Americans report rudeness and incivility at work. About 41 percent of American workers report having been psychologically harassed at work at some point - most often by their boss.

These data indicate a surprising contradiction in organizational behavior: Implementing initiatives that seek to amiably partner with employees to achieve performance improvement while continuing to interact abusively with those same employees. This contradiction occurs because the moral imperative expressed in humane employees treatment has not been institutionalized. The initiatives represent fashionable sentiments that are not supported by systematic accountability.

The absence of accountability creates the perception that the multitude of "programs" that propose to value employees are simply political necessities; the primacy of people as an organizational value is compromised. In reality, the organization is driven by increased profitability and the utility of each employee and not by an interest in their emotional well-being.

A survey of executives by the Workplace Bullying Institute indicates a glaring disconnect among executives concerning the presence of bullying in their organizations - there is widely divergent survey data between employee reports and those of executives. Sixteen percent of executives perceive the presence of bullying compared to 88% of employees. This disparity in perception supports the common perception that CEOs are not in contact with those who do the work.

Clearly organizational principles, mission, and core values have not been brought into alignment with the value of people qua people. The organization's mission, vision, core values, and the noble principles often expressed on their website are not being expressed through their interpersonal practices.

Over the last 5 decades, beliefs and practices related to managing people in the workplace have evolved considerably. When the industrial revolution began, workers were treated more like slaves than employees. In fact, in many industries, the department supervisors' offices were located in the center of operations and elevated one story above it. Front line managers were in fact "overseers" of the workers.

During the early days of mass production, verbal and physical abuse of employees was the norm. Since that time, an enlightened perspective has gradually evolved. It is generally understood that punitive management tactics are counterproductive and lead to employee emotional reactions that interfere with the quality of their work, a personal commitment to quality and productivity, a dramatic reduction in discretionary effort, and negatively influences employee job safety.

The gradual introduction of positive reinforcement into management practices proved that dealing with employees in a positive manner led to higher levels of group and individual performance and greater profitability. As organizations experimented and explored the use of various positive approaches to management like verbal reinforcement for improvement and achievement, awards, financial incentives, promotions, t-shirts, coffee cups, and much more - the positive results encouraged the expansion of these practices to broader initiatives like Employee Engagement and Total Rewards.

The theories and principles supporting the value of using positive tools and tactics with people were derived from Behavioral Psychology. Behavioral research over the last 70+ years clearly supports the principle that employee behaviors that are recognized, awarded, or rewarded increase in frequency: When discretionary effort is rewarded, employees exhibit more discretionary effort.

An unfortunate truth beneath this trend toward positive treatment is that it is not necessarily a shift in ethics and values but often merely the adoption of a motivational tactic for increasing human performance. In reality, positive management tactics have been driven by pragmatism and utility - not by any serious acceptance of the importance of human dignity and respect - not by the awareness that valuing people is a moral imperative.

Subsequently, if bonuses, recognition, and promotions are presented based upon certain employee behaviors, we are likely to see people perform those behaviors more frequently in the future. This has led to an unfortunate perspective by employees and management. It has devolved into a prescriptive motivational contingency: "If you do this, then you get that." The natural question for employees becomes, "What do I get if I do that?" If the organization then asks for more, the question becomes - "well what do I get if I do more." In this manner, the foundation for employee engagement eliminates the emotions of mutual regard and disintegrates into a calculated transaction.

The utilitarian purpose of using rewards and recognition is reflected in the pejorative and condescending reference to performance recognition as a "pat-on-the-back" or a "warm fuzzy." The mindset that promotes this language objectifies people into targets of manipulation - objects in a transaction that creates favorable outcomes for the organization.
Although employees and leaders recognize that the basis of employment is an exchange of value, when this utilitarian relationship exists in a context of management interpersonal abuse the effect is that the high-minded objectives of employee engagement become manipulative hypocrisies.