If you want to fix systemic "people issues" in your organization, then look to make changes in their operating environment. Reflexively, most of us assign behavior issues to the individual. “Why don’t they get it? Why don’t they behave like they care? What’s wrong with them?” Radical in the early-mid 1900s, social scientist Kurt Lewin proposed a system view of behavior, claiming, “Behavior is a function of a person and their environment.” Nearly 100 years later, most of us still haven’t internalized the message.
The next time you catch yourself assigning blame for behavioral problems to a person’s shortcomings, pause long enough to consider how their environment is influencing their behavior. With this inexpensive measure, you can shift your focus to action that has the power to sustainably change behavior and create the organization you need.
Poor communication, lack of initiative, turf protection, errors, absenteeism – these are common laments, spoken or unspoken, leaders frequently assign to people in their organizations. These are symptoms, not the root cause. The difference is more than word games. Individual behavior is influenced by individual personality and the environment in which someone operates. Change the people and the symptoms will predictably return because the environment remains unchanged. Address the root cause and the people will sustainably change their behavior.
Well-known models of organization performance and leading thinkers in management science position behavior as an outcome of system design choices. Chris Worley, Research Professor at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, claims, “Culture cannot be changed directly,” in a 31 Oct 2017 LinkedIn article titled, Our (Recent and Misguided) Obsession with Culture. He continues to say that goal-relevant and accountable behavior is an outcome of the environment.
The Organization Performance Model also maintains that an organization’s design creates culture. David Hanna, the model’s author, claims leaders must analyze design elements to understand the “root causes of the culture.” Culture describes how people collectively behave in an organization. There is a causal relationship from design to culture. The implication is that leaders can promote the desired behavior through consistent, thoughtful design choices.
Which element has the stronger influence - the person or the environment? The power of the environment is the only way to explain how organizations, comprised of highly differentiated people, promote similar behavior (i.e., culture) among their members.
An operating model is the system of choices that shapes the performance and delivery of value to customers. Leaders use an operating model to generate the financial performance required to sustain the business model. By design or default, operating models influence both the technical aspects and the social aspects of an organization. The latter is commonly overlooked or misunderstood. The impact is a diminished social experience which in turn diminishes technical process and overall business performance.
Job design within an operating model exerts a strong influence on the dynamism and energy in an organization. There has long been a known set of characteristics that reliably produce satisfying jobs for those who perform them. When jobs meet these characteristics, organizations tend to get productive, agile, and proactive behavior out of their members. These characteristics are:
(Source: Hackman and Oldham)
It is best to assess these qualities in the context of the core process that creates value for the customer. Frequently, jobs are designed in ways that are overspecialized (low variety), fragmented (low identity), disintegrated (low significance), disempowered (low autonomy), and distant (low feedback). These undesirable qualities drain the life from those operating in these jobs. They’re working for the weekend and might not show up on Monday. These job designs promote the behavioral issues leaders assign to people, forgetting that job design is the mechanism sitting between people and their behavior.
Designing your operating model around core value-creating processes is a path to dynamic employee behavior. Many organizations maintain a principally functional design. Jobs are distant from the core purpose of the organization. Incentives are generally task-oriented, narrow, and removed from customer value creation. The field of view is limited by the curtains of functional boundaries. In contrast, organizations designed around core processes make customer value creation the nucleus around which activities and jobs are organized. This tends to produce desirable jobs that improve the quality of work life. People with a high quality of work life normally behave in ways that satisfy leaders and create high-performing organizations.
Some leaders design their operating model to control people. These models tend to have tall, functional silos that place decision-making one level above where the real work is performed, and real knowledge resides. Wherever status and autonomy are diminished, behavioral problems will arise. Other leaders design their operating models to allow the people to control the work. People with status and responsibility, collectively organized around the same goals, do not tend to demonstrate behavioral problems. Wherever status and autonomy are increased, behavioral problems recede.
Behavior is a function of a person and their environment. The environment is your business's operating model. When you have a culture, group, or individual that is presenting behavioral problems, look first at the environment. This can be unnatural. There is a broadly shared reflex to hold individuals responsible for their personal behavior. Leaders can replace this person-oriented view with a system-oriented view.
Grab a pen and a stickie note. On it write “B = f(P , E)”. Fix it to a conspicuous part of your monitor, desk, or anywhere else you’ll see it frequently. Whenever you see behavior you’d rather not see, ask yourself how the operating environment might be driving the behavior. With practice, you’ll more reflexively take a system view of behavior. You’ll start seeing the behavior as a symptom, not a root problem to resolve. This is helpful. It’s easier and less expensive to change design features in your organization than it is to repeatedly turn over your people.
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Dan Schmitz is a Consultant at ON THE MARK.
OTM is the leading global boutique organization design consultancy with offices in the USA and UK. With over 450 successful redesigns and operating model modernizations completed, OTM is owner of the industry’s most integrated, comprehensive and holistic organization design solution. OTM enables its clients to realize their future ambitions.