Watch what your people are doing instead of focusing on what they ought to be doing

Have you ever watched a horror movie and yelled at the main character not to go down into the basement? Maybe you’ve played Monday morning quarterback after yet another gut-wrenching Bears’ loss? When you do that, you are using what Daniel Kahneman (Behavioral Economics guru) refers to as “System 2” thinking: a very rational, deliberate and slow way of looking at things that people use to predict what they would do in a particular situation. But the soon-to-be-victim and the quarterback? They are using “System 1” thinking, which is based on instinct and emotion in the moment.

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but most of the time, you act totally irrationally. Don’t take it personally – we all let our System 1 thinking take over in the moment, even at work! Having your decisions and actions flooded by emotions and biases is just part of being human. Guess what? Everyone who works in your company is human too. And that’s why the surveys, focus groups and best practice conversations you’ve been conducting haven’t helped you create any meaningful change in performance. The most effective way to encourage your people to be their best is to observe them.

Realize the Power of Observation

Think about it. You hired smart people with good social skills (except Jim in Accounting, that dude is just a weirdo). They know the theories of performance, all the right buzzwords and the taboo subjects to avoid when talking to you.

Employees aren’t necessarily trying to pull the wool over your eyes while giving feedback; they are just presenting the best possible version of what they would do vs. the unpolished version of what they actually do. When they are reflecting on something out of context, they are using System 2 thinking.

Market researchers have known about this for years, which is why things like shop-alongs, in-context ethnography, even biomarker research (think: eye movement and heart rates) continue to become de rigueur in the consumer space.

But back over here with our employees, we continue to send out surveys and do focus groups, usually with the assumption that more voices = better data. Yet, if all of those voices are telling you what they think they ought to be doing vs. what they are actually doing, what’s the point?

Three Tips to Better Understanding Your People

So how do we understand what’s really happening with our employees? Here are a few tips:

1. Embrace the power of observation

Send in the observers. The unbiased ones. We can better understand how people are performing their jobs by watching them do it. Notice I didn’t say, “by auditing them doing it” or “assessing how they do it.” Just watch. Collect the data (I’m talking really good, detailed notes) then bring it all together to analyze it. You’ll be surprised how many of your assumptions get challenged and how often the answers to your problems are revealed.

2. Don’t allow the employee to rely on theory

Ask your people to share the particulars of a past experience instead of asking them to talk about activities in broader terms. And never assume you know what happens next – ask the follow-up questions. If your focus group or interview subject ever says something like, “and then you know, I just [insert common task for that job here],” that’s your cue to ask them to spell it out for you. The closer you can get to the real context of the action or decision, the more the System 1 thinking will come out and get you closer to reality.

3. Keep it open-ended

You do not know this job better than they do right in this moment. Assigning answers (like a survey does) will limit your ability to understand the nuances and may even elicit a false response. Let’s use a silly example to illustrate this: let’s say you survey a bunch of people on what ice cream flavor they like, but you give them just two options: chocolate and vanilla. As you conduct the survey, you find out that 15% of the respondents like strawberry ice cream and 10% have gone paleo and don’t even eat ice cream! The choices you gave at the start limited the responses you got. So at work, don’t ask your people to choose – instead focus on what they spontaneously do and say.

Observe Your Employees

Are You Ready to Embrace the Power of Observation?

A few changes to the way you listen to your people can move you close to understanding their realities and the decisions they make, which can go a long way in better supporting their performance. What are you doing to listen to and observe your people today? What changes will you make going forward?

January 30, 2017


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