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Why You Need to Get Inside the Secret World of Your Employees

When things go wrong in your company, it's not enough to impose a fix. You need to understand your people and why they do the things they do.
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You want productivity and a smoothly-running company. So when things go wrong, changes are in order to fix things, right?

Maybe--the problem is, often those changes don't work. And when they don't, it's usually because you're too far removed from how things actually function, according to Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman of The Boston Consulting Group, authors of the forthcoming book "Six Simple Rules--How to Manage Complexity Without Getting Complicated."

The Makings of a Big, Fat Mess

The real problem, say Morieux and Tollman, is that companies and business become increasingly complex. It makes sense. You get more customers, more orders, you scale up operations. Now you compete in increasingly larger arenas. There's the whole marketing division, people working in customer service, product design, logistics, IT, and even a financial department.

The whole nature of business changes as well. Online, mobile, globalization, faster product lifecycles. You've got one big top with lots of little tops balanced on the surface with everything spinning.

So owners and executives try using "best practices," with a flotilla of theories that say how to structure the organization and the people in it. Bingo, you've just abstracted yourself into a great big mess.

According to Morieux and Tollman, the first thing to do is to step back and understand the people involved with all the processes. What do they face? What does the company tell them to do? What does it compensate them to do? Are the two the same?

And what separate goals do the individuals have? Are they working for the common goal? Creating a fiefdom? Focusing on another problem that is less important? Here's a great example from the authors.

Managers may think they know what their people are doing, but in fact they probably don't," Mr. Morieux said. "Managers leap instinctively into abstract 'best practices'--for example, trying to improve reliability by creating a Reliability Department. But that just creates new layers and procedures, and makes the organization more complicated. What they should do is to find out why employees are behaving in a way that makes products unreliable--hiding problems, or not sharing resources, or focusing too much on other, conflicting goals such as cost or time-to-market."

How to Undo the Mess

In other words, employees occupy their own secret world. Until you can enter it and understand how the company actually operates, and not how you think it is supposed to, nothing will improve.

You need to know how people behave. Even the best structure in theory can't guarantee that people will react as you want them to. And experience shows that often, your policies might pull them in multiple directions. I remember a company where inbound salespeople were being told to close business but were also being pushed to get off the phone quickly. Talk about a guarantee that no one would be happy.

The authors talk about a three-step process to start making things better:

  1. Find out what people do. Forget about job descriptions. Get deep enough into the organization to learn what is actually going on. Don't make judgments at this point, just see what's happening.
  2. Understand their reasons. People do things to achieve something. Maybe it's their own ends or maybe those of the company. But generally they are reacting to get along under the conditions you have created--you know, like that inbound sales group.
  3. Give them reasons to do what you want. If you can create conditions in which people have reasons to do what you want them to do, they will.

Morieux and Tollman claim that the result is better than what you would get by imposing some sort of additional mechanism from above that is more likely just going to collide with all the other mechanisms.

Companies are run by employees. Employees are people. You know how people are--you've been one all your life. So take a walk in their shoes through their secret worlds until they're not so secret. Then give them a good reason to cooperate instead of ordering what you want. The results might pleasantly surprise you.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Mar 24, 2014

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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