“If ever there were a moment for companies to be experimenting with how they organise and motivate their employees, now would seem to be it. Businesses are being yanked in every direction by the forces of recession, emerging markets and new technology.
Psychologists and economists are collaborating as never before to expand the field of behavioural economics, to tell us why we behave the way we do when it comes to work and money.So why are more companies not using the crisis to rethink how they manage their people? Why are they so much more innovative when it comes to jiggering with their balance sheet or product line than human resources?”
So begins the article “Break the model on employee behavior” on The Financial Times website (free registration required.) The article is a discussion with Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics at Duke University and author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality (two must reads, btw.)
The article quotes Dr. Ariely…
“There is no worse place to try to do experiments than human resources,” he said. “The first thing on their mind when they hear the word ‘experiment’ is lawsuits.”
But consider this…
HG Wells Had It Right
In a short story called “The Country of the Blind” (download pdf here) HG Wells writes about the experiences of a sighted man who stumbles into a town hidden in the mountains of Ecuador where all inhabitants are blind. The townspeople have been blind for generations and have adapted to their “disability.” They work at night when it’s cool and sleep during the day when it’s warm. Their houses have no windows. The visitor believes the adage that “in the land of the blind a one-eyed man is king” and sets out to rule the town. Unfortunately, the people in the village cannot understand his “sight” and see him as having the problem. Their solution? Blind him to make him fit in. Ultimately, he leaves the town rather than be blinded and dies trying to return to the real world.
Making Changes That Seem Obvious To One
In the FT article, Dr. Ariely states that banks (and, in my opinion he believes, by extension, all businesses) would be better off if they fire all but their most talented employees and hire thousands of new workers without the history and expectations of big bonuses.
That, my friends, is truly one-eyed man behavior.
Working within the System – Find Nearsighted and Farsighted Department Heads
Unfortunately, if you are one of the HR pros who has done some research and has explored possible solutions outside the “norm” you are truly a one-eyed HR pro in the land of the blind.
And that is a problem.
As the visitor found out quickly in the story – imposing your “opinion” on a group isn’t a great way to succeed. And gutting an entire organization, as Dr. Ariely suggests – won’t fly – you just don’t have that kind of juice. Any HR manager following Dr. Ariely’s advice will find themselves either A.) Doomed like Sisyphus to continue to push their HR agenda up a hill or B.) Ostracized and pushed out to die a slow and ignominious death in some small divisional HR job.
Neither are quality outcomes IMHO.
The real lesson here is that HR must do exactly what Dr. Ariely suggests HR cannot do – run experiments.
HR needs to find those managers and groups with some sight – find the nearsighted and farsighted who have a general idea of what you’re looking to accomplish. Work with those various groups to test and manage better ways to reward, compensate and influence behavior.
You cannot explain sight to the blind but you can help those who have some sight, see better.
You – HR – need to make a dent in what is probably a true statement – “Why are they [companies] so much more innovative when it comes to jiggering with their balance sheet or product line than human resources?”
Paul Hebert is Vice President of Individual Performance Strategy at Creative Group Inc, writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. He is dedicated to creating true emotional connections often overlooked in our automated, tech-enabled world. Using proven motivational theory, behavioral economics and social psychology he has driven extraordinary company performance for his clients. Paul is widely considered an expert on motivation, incentives, and engagement.