Thursday, March 13, 2014

Eliminate the Bad Before Attempting the Good

An article* in the McKinsey Quarterly suggests executives work at rooting out destructive behaviors before attempting to institute best practices.  The reason is simple: “research has found that negative interactions with bosses and coworkers [emphasis added] have five times more impact than positive ones.” (p. 81)  In other words, a relatively small amount of bad behavior can keep good behavior, i.e., improvements, from taking root.**  The authors describe methods for removing bad behavior and warning signs that such behavior exists.  This post focuses on their observations that might be useful for nuclear managers and their organizations.


Nip Bad Behavior in the Bud — Bosses and coworkers should establish zero tolerance for bad behavior but feedback or criticism should be delivered while treating the target employee with respect.  This is not about creating a climate of fear, it’s about seeing and responding to a “broken window” before others are also broken.  We spoke a bit about the broken window theory here.

Put Mundane Improvements Before Inspirational Ones/Seek Adequacy Before Excellence — Start off with one or more meaningful objectives that the organization can achieve in the short term without transforming itself.  Recognize and reward positive behavior, then build on successes to introduce new values and strategies.  Because people are more than twice as likely to complain about bad customer service as to mention good customer service, management intervention should initially aim at getting the service level high enough to staunch complaints, then work on delighting customers.

Use Well-Respected Staff to Squelch Bad Behavior — Identify the real (as opposed to nominal or official) group leaders and opinion shapers, teach them what bad looks like and recruit them to model good behavior.  Sounds like co-opting (a legitimate management tool) to me.

Warning Signs

Fear of Responsibility — This can be exhibited by employees doing nothing rather than doing the right thing, or their ubiquitous silence.  It is related to bystander behavior, which we posted on here.

Feelings of Injustice or Helplessness — Employees who believe they are getting a raw deal from their boss or employer may act out, in a bad way.  Employees who believe they cannot change anything may shirk responsibility.

Feelings of Anonymity — This basically means employees will do what they want because no one is watching.  This could lead to big problems in nuclear plants because they depend heavily on self-management and self-reporting of problems at all organizational levels.  Most of the time things work well but incidents, e.g., falsification of inspection reports or test results, do occur.

Our Perspective

The McKinsey Quarterly is a forum for McKinsey people and academics whose work has some practical application.  This article is not rocket science but sometimes a simple approach can help us appreciate basic lessons.  The key takeaway is that an overconfident new manager can sometimes reach too far, and end up accomplishing very little.  The thoughtful manager might spend some time figuring out what’s wrong (the “bad” behavior) and develop a strategy for eliminating it and not simply pave over it with a “get better” program that ignores underlying, systemic issues.  Better to hit a few singles and get the bad juju out of the locker room before swinging for the fences.

*  H. Rao and R.I. Sutton, “Bad to great: The path to scaling up excellence,” McKinsey Quarterly, no. 1 (Feb. 2014), pp. 81-91.  Retrieved Mar. 13, 2014.

**  Even Machiavelli recognized the disproportionate impact of negative interactions.  “For injuries should be done all together so that being less tasted they will give less offence.  Benefits should be granted little by little so that they may be better enjoyed.”  The Prince, ch. VIII.

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