Thursday, 16 February 2012

Realism Versus Idealism in Target Culture

"...a person in charge of a physical asset, such as a machine, may be eager to make a good impression on his superiors. Perhaps the company is in a rapid growth stage and promotions are coming fast. So he produces at optimum levels -- no downtime, no maintenance. He runs the machine day and night. The production is phenomenal, costs are down, and profits skyrocket. Within a short time, he's promoted. Golden eggs.
"But suppose you are his successor on the job. You inherit a very sick goose, a machine that, by this time, is rusted and starts to break down. You have to invest heavily in downtime and maintenance. Costs skyrocket; profits nose-dive. And who gets blamed for the loss of golden eggs? You do. Your predecessor liquidated the asset, but the accounting system only reported unit production, costs, and profit."
"[This] Balance is particularly important as it applies to the human assets of an organization..." (Stephen R. Covey)

Targets are an essential part of any business organisation's survival. Business planning requires that we make some key assumptions about things like sales, efficiency, productivity and costs, so we can make projections, or forecasts, on which to base strategic planning. Attached to that we need to measure outcomes to see if we are hitting our targets, and make appropriate responses if we are not. No one of sense would disagree with the need to have targets and their importance in the wider strategy of an organisation.

Developing a target culture can be beneficial in achieving strategic objectives, but it can also seriously undermine an organisation by contributing to delusion and therefore poor decisions. Which of these outcomes we receive, benefit or delusion, is dependent on the underlying ethos of our target culture - realism or idealism.

The climate of idealism

In highly competitive work situations, and even more generally in our current time when most people are concerned about their job security, it is easy for managers to overplay their hand in order to look good for their bosses. Put under pressure in meetings to outdo peers, or demonstrate month on month and year on year improvements, or agree with the subtle suggestions or explicit orders of superiors, it is easy to say "Yes" to some targets when we should really say "No" and negotiate alternatives. In effect we abandon critical thinking about targets in order to meet other more pressing short term objectives - survive the meeting, keep my boss off my back, keep my job for another day.

In reality we have "over egged the cake" by over-idealising what can be achieved. We have sacrificed realism in favour of an impossible ideal. We have set impossible targets.

The idealism pretense

A manager who has made this type of mistake feels pretty much alone. For the same reason they set or agreed to the targets in the first place they feel they can't go back to superiors and set different ones, particularly if they are asking for lower targets. Nor do they feel able to own up to their subordinates that they have "sold them down the river" and agreed to impossible targets on their behalf.

It is normal for managers in this situation to feel incredible pressure, personal conflict over the impact of their decision on others, and stress. This will manifest itself in common stress symptoms over time leading to increased emotionality, anxiety and depression.

Where managers seem quite glib, superficial, or lacking in empathy where the impact of their decision on others is concerned it is possible that another factor is in play. For more information on this possibility visit

Managers in this situation are likely to take what seems the only option open to them, that is to simply press ahead and attempt to meet the impossible target through the management (or manipulation) of their team, all the time maintaining the pretense to their superiors that the impossible ideal is not impossible. Some managers may reach the point where, as a coping mechanism, they come to believe fully in the reasonableness of the demands being made, while others will simply behave as though they are reasonable.

Idealism meets reality

Ultimately the over-idealised targets make their impact at the lower levels of the organisation where the demands actually need to be met. Whether the output of the organisation is measured in widgets per hour, sales revenue or student grades, the workforce is the means by which the targets might be achieved.

How managers introduce this to the workforce will depend on their own coping strategy. Typical approaches at this stage might include:
  • Passing the responsibility up the line "this is the target they have told us we must reach" and "sorry guys, we are all in this together"
  • Criticising past performance "national averages say we should get x but we are only getting y"
  • Threats about job security "if you can't deliver maybe you are just not capable."
Whichever approach or combination of approaches is used they all represent attempts to manipulate workers into accepting the given targets.

In reality, of course, workers know a lot about the detail of how their job works, often they are far more informed about this than their line managers. Under these conditions it becomes obvious very quickly when demands are impossible or, to use an important health and safety at work term, unreasonable.

The cost of unreasonable demands

The term "unreasonable demands" carries significant problems for any employer. Health and Safety law is  clear on an employer's duty of care for its staff, and this includes protection from the mental and emotional damage that comes from work related stress as well as more commonly recognised physical harm.

The impact of making genuinely unreasonable demands of a workforce is no different to the stress symptoms a manager will experience when unreasonable demands are made by their bosses, or when they misguidedly set unreasonable over-idealised targets of themselves. This very fact, however, can become a real barrier to acknowledging and dealing with the problem. A stressed manager can easily get caught in the trap of thinking that if they are personally willing to accept high stress to get the "job" done, then so should everyone else, including their workers.

Failure to address work related stress exposes the organisation to significant risk of increased sickness, absenteeism, harming its own staff and ultimately, if nothing is done, industrial tribunals and claims of compensation where harm caused can be traced to the unreasonable demands being made.

While some staff will ultimately be adversely affected by work related stress as a result of the unreasonable demands being made, others will take the alternative approaches - open resistance and passive resistance.

Some staff will openly do what superiors failed to do, and be completely open about what can be achieved and the limits to which they are reasonably prepared to go. "Shooting these messengers" is one reaction, and results in organisations losing quality skilled staff that would otherwise have made a significant contribution towards meeting the impossible target, and would have met any reasonable target without difficulty.

Most staff, particularly if they have witnessed an adverse management reaction to those who spoke up, will appear to accept the targets on the surface, but will know in their own mind what is reasonably achievable and simply deliver that. Morale will fall however as these staff are constantly chivvied, manipulated or criticised in attempts to make them deliver what they all know cannot be delivered. As a result some of these will leave the organisation, absenteeism will increase, and more will move into the 'work related stress' category.

Target not met

Over a prolonged period the organisation's ability to achieve results in the direction of the over-idealised target decreases, productivity falls and targets are not met.

Targets are not insignificant. It does matter when they are not met for all the reasons discussed in the opening paragraphs. The impact of failing to meet a target, or even get near one, depends on its strategic importance. What happens as a result of this failure depends on the level of the organisation you are at.

Managers will receive personal criticism, may be given a last chance to achieve, may lose their job, or any number of things. Interestingly enough these are the very things they were hoping to avoid by accepting or setting the over-idealised targets in the first place.

Workers will be blamed from above for being lazy, failing to understand the importance, going off sick etc. Individuals who are vulnerable, or who are deemed to be trouble makers, may be fired or made redundant. Redundancies may even be necessary if cost planning was based on realising the impossible target rather than a more realistic one. 'Support' may be put in place to 'help' workers meet the impossible demands (a whole subject of its own for another post). All have lost morale, many are suffering symptoms of work related stress.

Getting it right

Once again a key to successful setting and achievement of targets is to avoid delusion. Most adults are in tune enough to know what they would ideally like to achieve, but to also know that it is unlikely to happen that way. A firm recognition that ideal dreams and stark reality rarely meet is essential.

The second key is knowledge. Middle managers should know about the reality of their worker's job in detail. Not just what it is, but how long things should take, what the problems are, how to solve them, how to find efficiencies. Ultimately to know what can reasonably be achieved by the workforce in any given parameters. This allows the middle manager to do 2 things well. First, to know what targets are achievable with given resources and negotiate demands and resources with senior managers. Second to manage and organise the workforce to optimise their ability to achieve the target. Senior managers also need knowledge so that they can negotiate in return with their middle managers and be satisfied with the outcome.

The third key is trust. Do senior managers trust their middle managers? Do middle managers trust their workers? Do workers trust their managers? Sadly this is often not the case. Some workers do try to shirk and have an easy ride. Some middle managers do aim too low in order to easily beat targets. Some senior and middle managers do have unrealistic expectations and can be manipulative or bullying. But this is where the knowledge key comes in as this allows multiple levels of scrutiny to ensure that a reasonable optimum is reached, and methods used are appropriate.

Sadly too few are willing to make the necessary change.

Too many senior managers find it difficult to let go of their sense of entitlement and ego, and to listen and negotiate. Too many are suspicious that realism is a euphemism for lacking ambition and laziness, instead of accepting it to mean 'the truth' or 'the optimum'. Too many managers of all levels find it hard to use knowledge to provide a sound basis for negotiation and a rationale for the targets they set. Too many rely on old habits of bullying and manipulation, thereby undermining their own efforts and those of their organisation.

But who will make the first move?

Once again, because in most organisations the relationships are not equal, the change must be driven from the top.

Ultimately, success again requires people to listen carefully, and to tell the truth.

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