Reward the courageous employee

D. Murali | Updated on September 21, 2011


A credit card company was faced with something apparently inscrutable: A negative correlation between its internal subjective perceptions of customer service and what customers actually thought, so much so that what the company defined as good service was actually bad service, and vice versa.

But the company assumed it was doing the right thing because the employees followed predetermined steps with perfect compliance, reads a narrative in Breaking the Fear Barrier by Tom Rieger (Gallup). When the company started letting customers rate their service encounter experiences and employees delivered on those expectations while still ensuring compliance with legal requirements and policy, service ratings skyrocketed, Rieger continues.

Performance metrics

The key takeaway from the tale is that subjectivity can stoke fear. Explains Rieger that when organisations base performance metrics on clearly communicated and achievable targets that pertain to objective outcomes, then everyone knows exactly what they need to do. “But when performance is determined subjectively, based on nothing more than a supervisor's opinion, an organisation opens itself up to this courage killer.”

Not all fear is bad, clarifies the intro. For instance, feeling pressure to perform and being held accountable for goals is not harmful, the author instructs. “It's necessary. But when people fear losing respect, losing power, not getting a bonus, or losing something they feel entitled to, they can feel compelled to create walls. While those walls may shelter one person or group, they leave others out in the cold.”

A telling anecdote in the book, which can annoy the number-crunching fraternity, is about the sales and marketing division of a large global manufacturing company, where the finance department assumed so much control over everything that it could bring the entire company to a standstill. No one could spend a penny, even for approved budgets, without going through several layers of approval first, the author describes. “The costs in disengagement, turnover, and lost sales opportunities were massive. But the finance department was secure.”

Fear of losing control

Behind subjectivity, the author finds the manager's fear of losing control, which translates as better reviews to ‘yes men' than to those who show more initiative. Rieger cautions that if organisations do not base recognition and advancement on objective customer and financial outcomes, some managers may feel compelled to play favourites. He mentions as example how the General Motors' leadership used to be known for succession planning based on promoting ‘the unobvious choice.' The method, one learns, was intended to instil loyalty because promotion was not based on talent, performance, or even seniority: It was a reward for being ‘loyal' to one's superior.

Rather than grant favour to those who do not question authority, do not resist change, or do not attempt to take advantage of freedoms, base your evaluations on actual performance — either in terms of a more effective work environment, better financial outcomes, lower risk, or stronger customer relationships, all while staying within policy guidelines — the author advises. “Then it becomes harder for a manager's subjectivity to discourage courageous behaviour.”

A section on ‘excessive control' in the ‘courage killers' chapter opens by asking you to imagine that you are a patient on the operating table and your heart suddenly stops beating. Would you want to wait for your doctors to get the OK from their department head to try to revive you, asks Rieger. Of course not! Then why are so many companies willing to do that to their customers, he demands. “It's not unusual for sales reps to have to get permission to release product status information to their customers or for employees to have to get sign-off before even buying a customer a cup of coffee.”

Removing barriers to courage is only the first step, the author reminds. He urges leaders to give employees the encouragement, energy, commitment from above, and support to try new things and to focus on the greater good of the overall organisation. One of the courage enablers is to reward courageous behaviour, the book outlines.

“The reward doesn't have to be a trophy or a bonus; it could be a note from a manager, a pat on the back, or a story told at a department meeting… And the reward should be meaningful to the person you are rewarding and clearly linked to the types of new behaviours you are seeking.”

Energetic read that can set you on a liberated pace.

Published on September 21, 2011

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