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Systems thinking shows that it isn’t that simple

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Systems thinking shows that it isn’t that simple

Scott Miker

Yesterday I read an article online about employee disengagement.  Some researchers searched for reasons why employees are disengaged at work.  

They interviewed workers all over the world and then summarized their findings.  They said employees feel undervalued.  They said employees want credit when they do a good job instead of management jumping all over mistakes but ignoring successes.

They want their management to appreciate them.  They want to feel they are contributing to a greater whole.

As I read the article I realized that I have heard this before.  In books such as Good to Great we are told that management doesn’t value their employees enough.

But in real life I always find a much larger grey area than reading a book about the ideal situations.  In systems thinking we can start to see more of the system.

Some researchers look at it from the side of the manager.  They survey the manager and find that they view their employees as being lazy, unwilling to be flexible, and barely able to meet minimum requirements at work.

Seeing both sides we can start to see the dilemma.  I have experienced this from both sides, being an employee and being a manager.

Part of the problem is expectations.  When I was younger I had unrealistic expectations about job performance at work.  Because everyone is biased towards themselves and see their performance as higher than it actually is, we start to feel we are owed more.

I would be at a job for a few months and feel I deserved to be rewarded for my hard work.  I felt that I learned everything and now am taking on more and more responsibility and needed to be compensated. 

This often led to a mindset of entitlement.  I felt entitled to those things and had plenty of reasons why I felt that way.  When they didn’t come, I would start to feel as though the management didn’t care about me. 

I started to relate to those surveys of employees complaining about their work environment.  I would start to slack off, since in my mind I was doing so much more than everyone else anyways. 

Now, was this the result of a poor culture and poor management?  No it wasn’t.  It was due to my own bias towards my work and my unrealistic expectations of what was to come.  I was impatient.  I would be there a few months and want more. 

Now that I manage a staff I see the other side.  I see employees state they deserve a huge raise because they were on time for a few weeks.  I see an underperforming employee say their performance is fine but it is actually the metrics used that is the problem.   

Employees start strong but after a few months feel they deserve a 10% increase their pay.  Because this doesn’t align with the wage abilities of the company, they are disappointed and start to let their work reflect their disappointment. 

Or they see their mistakes as no big deal and want, instead, to be constantly praised for doing the minimum of their job.  When a mistake is made they point to the other work they did correctly.  They don’t see that they are not doing a great job; in their mind they are the most valuable employee in the company.    

As a manager I also see times when I have an employee who is doing a great job but makes a costly mistake.  Initially I would have addressed the mistake by going to that individual and reviewing the mistake. 

I have since learned that even when an employee is a high performer and rewarded accordingly, we have to address criticism with care.  Sometimes we can do the sandwich method and present a positive, then the area they need to improve, and then another positive. 

For some employees things like this work well.  Others will skip over the criticism and walk away from the conversation assuming they are doing a great job.  So we have to be much more careful in our interactions.   

Books, articles, researchers etc. always seem to create an easy ideal to cure this illness.  They tend to say it is just a matter of getting the right people on the bus or creating a culture of accountability.  They say managers just need to show appreciation or that corporations need to care about their people more than the bottom line. 

But the real world is much more complicated.  We have to see the various systems in the company, the individual’s preferences, and our own biases.  Then we have to work to create habits that are effective. 

From the employee standpoint, I had to put aside my own entitlement aside and start to feel grateful for everything.  I had to start to do more because that is who I am, not because I expected a prize for doing so.

As a manager I have to realize that employees tend to be in a grey area in their performance.  They aren’t perfect at everything but they also aren’t horrible in everything.  Then we have to start to find better ways of creating a culture that results in employees feeling valued and compensated appropriately.  

In life, things are often much more blurry than they seem from someone on the outside.  On the outside it might be easy to create ideals and then claim we have the answer.  But coming up with the answer doesn’t mean that answer actually works, it is just another idea to test. 

Whatever your role, start to do everything possible to see the situation from the other side.  Managers, start to think about it from the employee’s perspective.  Employees, start to see it from the company’s perspective.  Doing this will help us avoid the sabotaging behaviors and allow us to keep improving and getting better. 

As with all systems in life, it is often not as simple as we think.  There are numerous systems all working together that all play a part in the outcome.  So start to dissect these systems to get a clearer understanding of the system.