A Friday thought on Positive Productivity

Your maximum output is my minimum expectation!

This week BITS have delivered a number of behavioural workshops to varying audiences from different backgrounds, different in terms of industry and culture.  When exposed to the science of human behaviour and positive consequence management to influence behaviour, everyone understood and accepted this science.  However, under questioning after the workshops, around 50% of attendees reported that they accepted the science but were not prepared to reward their workers for doing a good job.  The general view of some attendees was that doing your job properly is what you get paid for, if you deviate from this there has to be a negative consequence.  While poor performance should always be addressed, disciplining low output and ignoring when people meet targets, is contrary to human behavioural science.

So if science supports positive reinforcement, why do so many managers use low expectation and exclusively negative consequences to influence behaviour?  The answer is decades, maybe centuries of class based leadership systems and deference.  When leaders have always behaved this way, change takes time, and that’s where BITS and our fellow behavioural scientists come in.  So with this is mind, this week’s Friday thought is dedicated to extolling the virtues of positive productivity management and tips and techniques for getting the best out of your workforce.

  • Reinforcement

Way back in 2000, I suggested a positive reward mechanism for safe behaviours at the power station where I worked.  My boss’s response was that he didn’t and never would reward people for working safely as this is his minimum expectation, why wouldn’t people want to keep themselves safe?  However, he was keen to introduce a ‘yellow card’ system where people receive a warning for unsafe behaviours, then are ejected and banned from site for a second offence.  The yellow card system was never implemented, nor was a positive reward mechanism and sadly for a time accidents continued.  Taking the principal behind the proposal in the context of productivity, let’s see how this might play out.

Peter is a pigeon who has a job to do.

His job is to pick up the weight and place it in box A.  Peter’s boss, Sandra, gives him a bag of seed every time he puts the weight in the right box.  If he puts the weight in the incorrect box, B, she does nothing.  Think about how Peter might behave with this reward mechanism in place.  Peter dedicates his time to putting the weight in the correct box.

Sandra is so successful at increasing productivity that she gets promoted.  She is replaced by Jim.  Jim inherits a motivated, high output worker in Peter.  With things going so well Jim wonders how he will make his mark.  He doesn’t like the reward mechanism that Sandra introduced so he replaces it.  Peter’s job remains the same, however, now when he places the weight in Box A, nothing happens.  Why reward someone for just doing their job?  That is what they are paid to do!  However, if Peter places the weight in Box B, he gets an electric shock.  Now think about Peter’s behaviour and output.  Peter absolutely does not want to perform the wrong task, so he never puts the weight in the wrong box.  As he get’s no recognition or reward for putting the weight in the right box, the only possible outcome of work for Peter is an electric shock.  He does it right he gets nothing, he does it wrong he gets a shock.  So Peter does nothing.

Jim decides that Peter is useless, tells everyone that he doesn’t know why Sandra was promoted if she employed pigeons as bad as this one.  He then sacks Peter.  Jim recruits a new pigeon who turns out to be useless too, so this one too is sacked.  Jim is no longer in the pigeon weight lifting business and is considering his options.

This very simple representation of classical conditioning and reinforcement neatly illustrates how positive recognition naturally leads to motivated hard workers and negative consequences leads to disengagement and low output.  It goes without saying that the low output version of Peter was also very angry and not responsive to anything proposed by Jim.  B.F.Skinner famously demonstrated this and other aspects of reinforcement in his Skinner box experiments.  Why not read around the subject and think about the reward mechanisms you have in place in your business.

  • Pygmalion effect

We are most of us familiar with the concept of a self fulfilling prophecy.  If we believe we are capable of something, then we are more likely to achieve it.  The Pygmalion effect is applying this vicariously.  Rosenthal and Jacobson demonstrated that by raising expectation of performance, you can improve the outcome regardless of initial ability.  They ‘misled’ teachers at a Californian school into believing that a group of students scored highly in an IQ test and were likely to be ‘bloomers’, despite these children having been selected at random.  At the end of one academic year, the performance of the ‘bloomers’ had increased significantly more than the performance of the other students.  By genuinely maintaining a high level of expectation for the performance of your team, your behaviour will be modified (at a subconscious level) in such a way that their performance will improve.  The cynics among you may be thinking hang on, this is Jim.  Jim’s expectation was that Peter would do his job right without any persuasion, he had a high expectation of output.  While this may appear true, if Jim genuinely had a high expectation, he wouldn’t have introduced the electric shock process.  For the Pygmalion effect to work, the expectation must be genuine and not rhetoric.

  • Maintain Presence

Encouraging your team to focus on their work whilst at work sounds obvious, however, new technology and working practices maybe working against us.  Since the pager was first introduced in the 1950s, bosses have been excited about more and more ways to keep their staff working even when they are not at work.  Our initial inclination is to assume that increasing working hours to include time spent at home must increase productivity, surely.

This isn’t necessarily the case.  It leads to people leaving tasks until later when they are at home.  Modern workers send emails instead of having a productive conversation.  Emails become so frequent that they are largely ignored.  All this amounts to people working on tickover for their waking hours rather than at cruising speed for 7.5 hours a day.

A number of German companies, such as VW, have opted to switch off their email servers at the end of the working day.  So your smartphone only receives emails during working hours.  It also means you can’t send an email out of hours either.  The result is increases in productivity and measured motivation and engagement.  This also helps maintain a clearer delineation between work time and social time.  So the worker who isn’t expected to read and send emails from home, is less inclined to check Facebook and Snapchat in the workplace.  This again encourages the worker to remain present and focused whilst at work.

In the airline business, there are strict rules about cockpit behaviour.  Between certain points of a flight, crew members in the cockpit are not permitted to talk about anything other than the flight.  This enables them to stay focused and apply their time and brains to the task of flying the plane.  While I wouldn’t endorse this in the workplace, in fact I would endorse allowing downtime and social interaction in the workplace, it does demonstrate the importance of focus and presence.  Consider the ergonomics of your workplace and evaluate whether there are any distractions or interruptions that can be engineered out.  Things like background noise, housekeeping tasks during the day, frequent deliveries outside your office window can all break a work process and impact productivity.  Of course, the most frequent distractor is the aforementioned email.  If you do nothing more than switch off email notifications for all your staff you will see an improvement.  Almost all workers report that when a notification comes through they stop doing what they were doing and open up the email.  This usually leads them down a new avenue and the task that was previously their priority is now abandoned to be restarted later.

  • Hawthorne

Elton Mayo demonstrated in his Hawthorne experiments that productivity increases whenever you show an interest in your workers.  It doesn’t really matter what changes you make, but making changes to try and improve your work environment delivers improvements in productivity.  As Mayo discovered, increasing light levels in a telecoms factory improved output.  He also discovered that when he decreased light levels, output increased again.  They even saw increases in overall output by shortening the working day!  His team also noticed that over time, output returned to original levels.  So frequent, but not disruptive, change is the key.  Involve your team in the changes and get them to come up with ideas for change.

  • Ownership

Many years ago I was part of an outage team delivering a major turbine inspection.  Just as we were about to fire up the turbine after reassembly, the contract manager for the main contractor came to see us.  He had a small locking plate in his hand.  He told us it was supposed to be inside the turbine and we couldn’t fire the machine.  We were now looking at lifting off the covers and performing rework.  At the start of the outage, removing major pipework and lifting off the covers took 5 days, lifting out the rotor took another day.  So we were looking at a chunky delay.  The next day, I came into work to be told we were almost ready for the rotor lift.  This incredible work rate had been achieved with around one tenth of the full team size.  There were no accidents and no quality issues (both of which had been features of the earlier work).  How on earth did so few people perform so much work in such a short space of time to such a high standard?

The man who came into the client office with a locking plate in his hand, was the man who was responsible for quality control and the man who was responsible for the overrun.  He was also the man who’s job it was to make it all right.  This level of ownership and clear responsibility was integral to his desire to get this job done right and quickly.  The contract had liquidated damages included.  So for each day over schedule there would be a penalty payment.  This sounds like a negative consequence doesn’t it?  However, Skinner characterised this type of consequence differently.  He called it Negative Reinforcement, avoiding a negative consequence becomes a positive outcome.  Unlike Peter with his weight and boxes, in this scenario the only way to avoid the negative consequence is to work harder.  Peter could avoid his by not working at all! So we have reinforcement.

The contract manager had kept back a handful of his best people to help with wrap up activity.  So he had a genuine confidence in and high level of expectation of his team members.  Here we see the Pygmalion effect.

At the start of the outage, the turbine opening was part of a wider work scope.  Other large equipment was being worked on and there were distractions everywhere.  However, for the re-work, there were no such distractions.  The team had unwavering focus on the task in hand.  So we have presence.

As for the Hawthorne effect, it is fair to say that everyone had all eyes on this team and their work, indeed the whole organisation was showing an interest!  While this is not the traditional application of the effect, every action of the team was observed and any inactivity would have been noticed straight away.

So here we have some of the key factors required to improve productivity coupled with a clear sense of ownership.  The result was that a task that typically took 6-8 days had been completed in a little over 3.

The trick is to reproduce a situation where these factors are present without the negative feature of re-performing poor quality work.  By focusing on the factors above, you can improve productivity in a positive environment using positive influences.  The attendees at our workshops committed to try positive rewards when they get back to work.  Science tells us that they will see positive results which will hopefully provide their first steps towards using positivity to improve human performance.

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