Expectations--Outcomes vs. Process
The Law of Unintended Consequences

Individual Expectations And How We Screw it Up

Previously we were talking about the role that expectations play in NPO performance--more specifically, we looked at NPO goals at the organizational level. We also talked about the difference between outcomes and process expectations. (Wasn't that fun?)

Today, we're going to take dig a little more deeply into expectations at the individual employee level. After all, they're the ones who presumably will take you to the organizational success. (NOTE--I am talking here about working with paid staff. Volunteer expectations are similar, but different and in this post I'm not dealing with issues related to setting expectations for volunteers)

You Get What You Measure Redux
Just a little reminder, in case you've forgotten . . . Human beings are driven by rewards and punishments. They will generally work on those things for which they are held accountable (both positively and negatively) and they will not work on the things that are ignored by the organization.

As you'll recall from our previous discussion, most NPOs regard themselves as being mission-driven. As a result, they also tend to believe that their staff are very mission-driven, spending their days doing the best things for the kids or women or homeless people or disaster victims they serve. Let me be clear that I think that there is much truth in this. Most people won't accept the wages and working conditions of an NPO unless they're either bought into the organization's mission or really desperate. In my experience it's usually the former.

BUT . . . These people also want to keep their jobs. . . so THAT means that whatever the organization says they should be doing, that is generally what they'll be doing. And if the organization is most focused on outcomes, then that's what staff will focus on too.


Shortest Route

to Expectations Will Generally Be Chosen
There was a time when NPOs weren't particuarly good at setting performance objectives. This has changed in recent years and I find that most NPOs have some level of performance metrics in place. The problem, though, is that many times these metrics are only outcomes-based. And remember what we discussed is a potential challenge with outcomes-based expectations? They often create opportunities for abuse.

Let me give an example. In a former life, my husband worked for an agency that was very focused on job placements. The entire department was in a tizzy every day. "How many placements have you gotten?" "I need only two more." "Damn, I have to get 6 more."

Wow, you would think--this is working really well. These people are really focused on what we need them to be focused on. This is great! They really know what they're doing.

Wrong. Here's what actually happened.

First of all, staff did not spend time helping people get jobs. Remember--the measure was "how many people were placed." Instead, they spent it documenting placement. More specifically, they spent their days trolling the database to find people who had already gotten a job on their own (!) and then calling the person so that staff could take credit for that placement. Staff literally spent their days combing through computer files and calling people who were already working! They actually resented it if a person who needed a job came in and interrrupted them in this task because they might not get a placement from it! They would groan and try to pass the job seeker off on someone else so that they could return to the computer to find another working person to take credit for. I'm pretty sure that this was not what the NPO intended to have happen (although I could be wrong)

Here's the other thing that went on. Staff had a quota of placing 8 people a month. If they "placed" their 8 people by September 10, then they considered themselves done for the month. They might try to work with a few people to get a jumpstart on October, but for the most part, they kicked back and enjoyed some free time. Not exactly what we were hoping for here, either.

At first when my husband would tell me this stuff, I would go crazy. I would blame his co-workers, talk about how they weren't doing their jobs. But then I thought about it. Yeah, they WERE doing their jobs. The problem was that the agency had focused on such narrow, outcomes-based performance expecations, people didn't see their jobs BEYOND that. Because there were minimal process objectives in place, the focus had shifted entirely to outcomes, to the detriment of both the NPO and their clients.

So one of the key considerations here--and this takes us back to the outcomes vs. process issue--is that in setting individual employee expectations, we must focus on setting expectations not just on WHAT gets done, but on HOW it's done. We must be prepared to be explicit in these expectations and be willing to hold staff accountable for these expectations.

We'll talk more about individual performance the next time.



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