Individual Expectations And How We Screw it Up
Some Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Expectations

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Last time we talked, we were discussing individual performance objectives and the very human reality that you get what you measure. This is a cardinal rule that I find is ignored all too often usually with the best of intentions.

Another mistake that organizations often make is to ignore the law of unintended consequences which holds that "almost all human actions have at least one unintended consequence. In other words, each cause has more than one effect, including unforeseen effects." In this case, what we mean is that unless you're REALLY careful about how you set individual performance expectations, you're going to end up with staff behaviors and organizational outcomes you didn't intend or want.

Here's what often happens. Jobs R Us helps people find jobs. They've decided that a good organizational goal would be to help 40 people per month get a job and they're going to measure whether or not 40 people got a job by looking at their dandy new computer system, where each case manager is supposed to be documenting the people who obtained employment.

Further, they've decided that it makes sense to just divide these forty placements up among their four case managers--each case manager will be responsible for "placing" 10 job seekers.

Jobs R Us  now THINKS (not unreasonably) that they've  set up a system where staff are "held accountable" for helping people get jobs. This is inaccurate. What they've done is:

Set up a system that rewards staff for DOCUMENTING that people got jobs.

Do you see what happened here? It's not about helping people find work. It's about PROVING it. And in some cases, that can be done without actually doing anything.  In the worst case scenario, so much attention is paid to the documentation aspect, the customer actually walks away angry because service will go right out the window ("Hi--Congratulations on that new job. I'm calling because I need to prove that you're working." Yeah, thanks. Click)

So here's the law of unintended consequences at work. We WANTED staff to focus on helping people get jobs. But what we got were people working on DOCUMENTING that a customer got a job. Big difference.

Here's another unintended consequence that I often see. Jobs R Us is really into teaming and they want their case managers to support each other and work together as a team, sharing job leads, etc. But they've just set INDIVIDUAL performance objectives! This inevitably sets up a system of competition, not cooperation.

Depending on how crazy the organization gets about the 10 placements a month ("You're FIRED if you get 8 placements!"), what you will often see is staff withholding job leads so that only "their" case load gets access to those jobs. Or if Case Manager A is out of the office and one of her customers comes in, Case Manager B isn't going to "waste time" helping that customer--she gets rewarded for HER placements, not for helping someone else's client.

Do you see how the expectations have created these outcomes? It's not that staff aren't doing their jobs, it's that the law of unintended consequences has intervened and we have created a system to which they are responding. They understand their jobs to be something different than what you intended. This tends to happen when we focus more on outcomes measures, rather than on setting expectations for how processes will occur.

So what can you do? How do you set individual expectations that will give you the kinds of staff behaviors you're looking for? That's a topic for another day . . .


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