The Opera House Job
The Sydney Opera House is regarded as one of the world’s iconic structures. On completion the designers, engineers and architects basked in the reflected glory of its spectacular form.
Many of the workers who built it, lost their jobs. When it was finished they had no more work.
How Big’s The Risk?
As a lark, you’ll happily try walking across a 10 metre (33 feet) long plank only 10 cm (4 inches) wide that’s suspended 20 cm (8 inches) above a backyard swimming pool. Not for $1million would most of us try walking along the same plank if it were only 3 metres (10 feet) long but suspended 33 metres (100 feet) above the bottom of a sheer walled canyon.
The difference between the engineer and the worker is consequences. And it’s the perceived consequences that stop us from “walking the plank” above the chasm.
There are two kinds of consequences. Real and perceived. The real ones are based on actual events we ourselves experienced or observed others experiencing. If you’ve run into the back of a car in front of you a couple of times because you were driving too close to it – tailgating – you’ll probably keep back in future. If you see footage of a number of collisions caused by tailgating, you’ll think twice about doing it yourself.
That makes good sense. But it’s perceived consequences that cause managers most grief.
A perceived consequence is a belief. It may or may not have a factual base. It doesn’t matter. It’s something an employee believes will occur as a result of some event occurring. It doesn’t matter how irrational the belief seems to a manager. If the employee believes that a perceived consequence is likely to upset, disrupt or disadvantage him or her, they’ll resist.
Perception And Reality
They may not tell you they intend to resist. They may even say they support the new or different event. But they’ll resist by reacting in such a way that any disadvantage to them is minimized.
You can bark out all the commands you like. If employees perceive that they’ll be disadvantaged, they’ll resist. It could cost your business heaps of money. It will most certainly cause delays, customer complaints and recriminations. And make no mistake, when this happens, the manager’s at fault.
A client called me to seek advice. He had a problem with an employee who’d been with him for 15 years. This man was dedicated, conscientious, reliable and competent. He had been highly valued for some time. “But,” said the client, “since we installed our new computer system his work has deteriorated alarmingly. We want to keep him. He deserves that, given his long, loyal service. But if his work continues to be poor, we may need to get rid of him.”
I asked the client if the new computer system affected the employee. “Very much,” said the client. “It makes what he does even more important. But he doesn’t seem to be able to grasp that. And we trained him in the system with all the other staff.”
Patience and Consequences
“Did you sit down with this employee and explain to him in detail how the new system would affect his work and how you’d be even more reliant on his contribution?” I asked.
“Not on those terms. Not as clearly as that,” replied the client. I explained that it sounded to me as if the long standing reliable employee saw the new computer system as a threat. The client agreed that he had some explaining to do.
Not Rational But Real
This is an excellent example of how perceived consequences can affect an employee’s judgement and the quality of their work. There may be no rational reason for their belief. But it’s real to them.
There’s no point in saying, “I’m the manager. They’ll do as they’re told or I’ll fire them.” Apart from reflecting management practices of the 19th rather than the 21st century, it usually doesn’t work. Recruiting and training staff is an expensive business. If you’re going to turn over experienced staff to show who’s boss, you’ll waste a lot of money. You’ll never get a competent and reliable team in place – and you’ll spend half your management life doing your employees’ work.
If that’s what you want, go ahead. But there are other methods you can use.
To reduce the chance of perceived consequences damaging your business try these suggestions.
- Develop a performance improvement climate in your business. Always ask “How can we do it better?” “How can we improve?”
- Welcome suggestions from employees. So that they too learn to consider consequences ask, “Who’d be affected and how?” “How would the business benefit?” “Who’d be disadvantaged?”
- When contemplating major change, involve employees as early in the process as you can. Seek their ideas on both the benefit of the change, how to implement it smoothly and how to reduce the effect of perceived consequences.
- Explain where changes, even small ones, fit the overall focus of the business and your target. Explain how the business will benefit.
- Specify “what’s in it for them” in their terms: remember, in their terms.
You can easily turn a nest of possible negative consequences into a raft of probable positive consequences if you’re careful, collaborative and consultative. I don’t suggest you allow employees to overrule you and stop development. But they do have valuable insights that can help you to improve your business. It’s just a question of you being able to uncover them.