What do you believe about other people? This post takes a look at how the assumptions we hold about others impact the design and performance of an organisation.
Take a look at the statements below. Which ones do you think are true? Which ones are untrue?
- It is human nature for people to do as little work as they can get away with.
- If employees have information they have better attitudes.
- The problem in asking employees for their ideas is that their view is too narrow for their suggestions to be of much practical value.
- People will raise their standards if they are accountable for their own behaviour and correcting their own mistakes.
- It is better to give employees both the good and the bad news because most people want the whole story, no matter how difficult.
- A manager is entitled to more respect than their team members.
- If you give people more money then they are less likely to care about things like responsibility and recognition.
- If people are allowed to set their own goals and standards of performance, then they tend to set them higher than management would.
- The more knowledge and freedom a person has in their job, the more they will want to use it to change things for the better.
- People would be more careful about the quality of their work if they could see the results.
- Most people cannot handle a lot of different tasks. They work better if they stick to one thing.
- Everybody is out for themselves.
- Most people are trustworthy.
- People need to be given clear direction. They want specific rules, guidelines and targets for their work.
How did you respond to each statement?
The 14 statements above come from an activity called “Assumptions about People” that is sometimes used in education programs about high performance organisations.
The activity is typically used with sponsors, governance groups, senior leaders and design teams that have responsibility to design and implement high performance work systems.
It’s used to stimulate reflection and discussion. Some assumptions assume positive intent and enable High Performance and some disable it.
- People are encouraged to think together about the kind of assumptions that get baked into organisation design.
- People are also encouraged to discuss their different perspectives and challenge one another in an effort to appreciate the diversity among them.
The rest of this post offers a perspective on the relationship between our assumptions about people and high performance organisations.
Assumptions about People and what they mean for High Performance
The expression High Performance Organisation (HPO) appears in just about every big company’s set of aspirations or strategy documents, and it appears in many optimistic statements about company culture. The concept isn’t new. HPOs are systems-based and their designs seek to optimise the interrelatedness of people and technical systems at work. It is no surprise that in these kinds of organisations, the existence of Trust is core to their sustained success.
So what enables Trust? This is where our assumptions about other people fit in. The trust that gets established among people is impacted by the beliefs that we hold about each other. In organisations, beliefs influence:
- how values are described and enacted,
- how we treat one another and
- how various elements of our organisations, for example policies and work rules, are designed.
Belief systems that value trust should (in theory) produce organisation rules and behaviours consistent with trusting others. In turn, those rules and behaviours assist in unlocking potential and are rewarded with discretionary effort and the much-vaunted high performance.
The corollary is that beliefs rooted in suspicion or low expectations of others produce organisations with rules and behaviours that self-reinforce. In turn, these impact performance. These sorts of beliefs make it hard for a company to achieve its goals and improve on a continuous basis, because people can sense that they aren’t trusted. Productivity is compromised and discretionary effort is off the table – by that I mean the discretionary, intellectual contribution that people make to improvement, quality and productivity – it gets withheld and / or withdrawn, which offers no-one satisfaction or joy.
When should the Assumptions about People topic come up?
If you’re engaged in a HPO journey, discuss the beliefs you want to hold at the outset of the work. This is when you’re making the case and getting the sponsors on board. It’s also a topic to include when engaging and educating stakeholders, and it becomes a reference point at each stage of HPO design and implementation. I can give you a cheatsheet for running the Assumptions about People activity, which I adapted from a version I saw many moons ago. All credit to my original source (Corrs Schneider) who had distilled the fundamentals of socio technical systems theory into a practical and illuminating activity that helps people to think together and shift their mindsets.