Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Motivating with Measurement: Feedback, Focus and Energy

In the last post we reviewed how measures lead to insights. Insights without action are not helpful, so let’s look into measurement-based motivation and how measurement can drive individual and organizational change.

The unique motivational properties of measurement are leveraged simply by providing data and insights, but unintended consequences are common. How do we use measurement to motivate in the right direction?

Turning Feedback into Motivation: Comparison, Context, and Connotation

One of the best methods of developing employees and organizations is providing information on performance: feedback

In the last post, we looked at how turning measurement data into insight required three steps—comparison, context, and connotation. 

·         Data becomes information by comparison
·         Information gains meaning though context
·         Meaning is translated into personal or organizational insights by considering connotations of the data (what's in it for me?).

This is also the structure for motivating with developmental feedback. We present performance relative to a standard (comparison), express the meaning of that difference (context), and discuss the personal implications of the measure (connotation). The entire field of psychology is based on using insights to motivate change and growth.

In many of our leadership development programs, we provide multi-rater or personality feedback.  Participants often say it is the most impactful part of the program. When we provide feedback, we make sure participants understand:
  • Their personal strengths and weaknesses, or how they are performing relative to others (comparison). For example, “Your direct reports provide you with lower ratings on the statement, My manager cares about me as a person.
  • How their behavior, personal interactions, and style affect their workplace (context). “How does this perception affect your team and interactions?”
  • How the interactions and style end up affecting the participant (connotation). “Would you benefit from focusing more on your people’s emotions? Would this affect willingness to put in discretionary effort to achieve results?” 

Employees who gain insights about their performance or interpersonal style soon act differently. Insights lead to business results and organizational learning through human motivation, development, and change. 

Feedback systems such as performance management systems and 360/multi-rater assessments rely on this motivation process. Most people will work to improve if they have a clear vision of how to do so. 

As an executive coach, I have found that simply providing measurement data with comparisons, context, and connotative meanings will lead to a desire to change.  With work and effort, and sometimes with additional guidance, the behavior changes and business results follow.  In most cases, change will occur without special incentives.

Measuring to Move Forward: Providing Focus and Energy

Measurement data is particularly effective because it provides both focus (direction toward improvement) and energy (inspiration to develop a new skill or change self-defeating behavior). 

Because measurement is precise, it provides direction. In other words, if your goal is to be a better teacher, measurement data can focus your energy on a specific area in which you need to improve (for example, keeping students engaged).

At the same time, communicating the measure using the three Cs—comparison, context, and connotation—can provide the energy, or inspiration, to work toward improvement.

Of course, if we measure the wrong thing, we’ll motivate employees to make the wrong changes. If measures aren’t carefully aligned with organizational strategy—in other words, if we’re not measuring skills or behaviors that the organization needs—feedback is unlikely to build business results. This is both the power and the pitfall of measurement: Every measure is based on a theory.  If the theory is wrong, it is likely to motivate the wrong performance.  

Competency models provide a great illustration of wrong theories of performance. For example, many models include decisiveness, but not all jobs require this competency. I’ve seen many project managers derail from being too decisive.

Consider a project manager coordinating teams working together on a complex project. Because of the project’s complexity and the nuances of team dynamics, it would probably be best for the manager to facilitate joint decisions. The project manager can’t be too decisive—she doesn’t have the authority, and may not have the expertise, to make good decisions. In addition, she’ll probably find that decisiveness alienates the team leaders. If decisiveness was included in this manager’s competency model, it’s an example of a measure motivating performance that undermines business objectives.

Organizational improvement builds from the insights of executives, managers, and employees. Motivation and behavior change will vary according to the insight, so facilitating a common frame is critical.   

Without shared insights, there is no telling how the motivation will manifest! Measures can have very different meanings. The way a measure is communicated could motivate an employee to change jobs, game the measurement system, or retaliate against the employer. Of course, it could also have the intended result, and the employee could be motivated to improve her performance.  

As we reviewed in the last post, both the formal (denotative) and personal (connotative) meaning of measures need to be managed. Understanding the connotative meaning of measures acknowledges the subjective element in the motivation process. It’s important to remember that the insights gained are ultimately personal, and will lead to personal motivations for change. In some cases, as I just mentioned, the process may elicit an employee’s desire to find another job. This may be good or bad for organizational performance!

Feedback in Education Reform: A Cautionary Tale

Right now, across the country, our public education system is involved in a high-stakes effort to improve student achievement using teacher performance feedback.  Many school districts are working to provide feedback using measurements such as student gains on standardized tests and teacher behavior in the classroom.   

As measures of teacher and student performance are better understood, feedback should lead to better student achievement—as long as districts choose the right measures, and motivate the right changes. There are numerous educational studies examining teacher behaviors linked to higher student achievement, including the Gates Foundation’s MET studies. Given the influence of these studies, I hope they provide useful guidance. The history of education reform is full of big ideas that have turned out to be only partly right, or completely wrong. 

In addition, this high-stakes effort will fail if steps are not taken to build shared meaning through comparison, context, and connotation. When I speak with educators and reformers, it seems that this critical step is sometimes forgotten or assumed. As a result, all sorts of motivations may emerge from the data.

Policy makers are mandating performance feedback in the hope that children will become more academically capable.  Teachers may view the feedback differently. Context matters: If a teacher could lose his or her job as a result of measurement data, this is the basis of negative motivation.

It is critical that school administrators work to manage the meaning.

Closing Thoughts

Measurement-based motivation is powerful because it provides both direction and drive, but steps must be taken to harness its power. Insights from measures can lead to motivated growth in alignment with an organization’s goals, or motivation to move in the opposite direction. Perhaps  this is why some senior managers are afraid of publicizing performance measures. This is a shame; they are missing an opportunity to increase engagement around the mission by building meaning into the organization.

Is your organization using measures optimally?  In the next post we'll explore how measurement-based motivation can be amplified with incentives and accountability.


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