Human Factor by
Gerard M Blair
management of a small team, the human factor is crucial to success. This
article considers possible motivators and a simple framework for dealing
When you are struggling with a deadline
or dealing with delicate decisions, the last thing you want to deal with
is "people". When the fight is really on and the battle is
undecided, you want your team to act co-operatively, quickly,
rationally; you do not want a disgruntled employee bitching about life,
you do not want a worker who avoids work, you do not want your key
engineer being tired all day because the baby cries all night. But this
is what happens, and as a manager you have to deal with it. Few
"people problems" can be solved quickly, some are totally
beyond your control and can only be contained; but you do have influence
over many factors which affect your people and so it is your
responsibility to ensure that your influence is a positive one.
You can only underestimate the impact
which you personally have upon the habits and effectiveness of your
group. As the leader of a team, you have the authority to sanction,
encourage or restrict most aspects of their working day, and this places
you in a position of power - and responsibility. This article looks
briefly at your behaviour and at what motivates people, because by
understanding these you can adapt yourself and the work environment so
that your team and the company are both enriched. Since human psychology
is a vast and complex subject, we do not even pretend to explain it.
Instead, the article then outlines a simple model of behaviour and a
systematic approach to analysing how you can exert your influence to
help your team to work.
Consider your behaviour. Consider the
effect you would have if every morning after coffee you walked over to
Jimmy's desk and told him what he was doing wrong. Would Jimmy feel
pleased at your attention? Would he look forward to these little chats
and prepare simple questions to clarify aspects of his work? Or would he
develop a Pavlovian hatred for coffee and be busy elsewhere whenever you
pass by? Of course you would never be so destructive - provided you
thought about it. And you must; for many seemingly simple habits can
have a huge impact upon your rapport with your team.
Take another example: suppose (as a
good supportive manager) you often give public praise for independence
and initiative displayed by your team, and suppose (as a busy manager)
you respond brusquely to questions and interruptions; think about it,
what will happen?
Probably your team will leave you
alone. They will not raise problems (you will be left in the dark), they
will not question your instructions (ambiguities will remain), they will
struggle on bravely (and feel unsupported). Your simple behaviour may
result in a quagmire of errors, mis-directed activity and utter
frustration. So if you do want to hear about problems, tell the team so
and react positively when you hear of problems in-time rather than
When thinking about motivation it is
important to take the long-term view. What you need is a sustainable
approach to maintain enthusiasm and commitment from your team. This is
not easy; but it is essential to your effectiveness.
Classic work on motivation was
undertaken by F. Herzberg in the 1950's when he formulated the
"Motivation-Hygiene" theory. Herzberg identified several
factors, such as salary levels, working conditions and company policy,
which demotivated (by being poor) rather that motivated (by being good).
For example, once a fair level of pay is established, money ceases to be
a significant motivator for long term performance. Herzberg called these
the "Hygiene" factors to apply the analogy that if the
washrooms are kept clean, no one cares if they are scrubbed even harder.
The point is that you can not enhance your team's performance through
these Hygiene factors - which is fortunate since few team leaders have
creative control over company organization or remuneration packages.
What you can influence is the local environment and particularly the way
in which you interact with your team.
The positive motivators identified by
Herzberg are: achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility,
and advancement. These are what your team needs; loads-o-money is nice
but not nearly as good as being valued and trusted.
As the manager, you set the targets - and
in selecting these targets, you have a dramatic effect upon your team's
sense of achievement. If you make them too hard, the team will feel
failure; if too easy, the team feels little. Ideally, you should provide
a series of targets which are easily recognised as stages towards the
ultimate completion of the task. Thus progress is punctuated and
celebrated with small but marked achievements. If you stretch your
staff, they know you know they can meet that challenge.
Recognition is about feeling appreciated.
It is knowing that what you do is seen and noted, and preferably by the
whole team as well as by you, the manager. In opposite terms, if people
do something well and then feel it is ignored - they will not bother to
do it so well next time (because "no one cares").
The feedback you give your team about
their work is fundamental to their motivation. They should know what
they do well (be positive), what needs improving (be constructive) and
what is expected of them in the future (something to aim at). And while
this is common sense, ask yourself how many on your team know these
things, right now? Perhaps more importantly, for which of your team
could you write these down now (try it)?
Your staff need to know where they
stand, and how they are performing against your (reasonable)
expectations. You can achieve this through a structured review system,
but such systems often become banal formalities with little or no
communication. The best time to give feedback is when the event occurs.
Since it can impact greatly, the feedback should be honest, simple, and
always constructive. If in doubt, follow the simple formula of:
- highlight something good
- point out what needs improving
- suggest how to improve
You must always look for something
positive to say, if only to offer some recognition of the effort which
has been put into the work. When talking about improvements, be
specific: this is what is wrong, this is what I want/need, this is how
you should work towards it. Never say anything as unhelpful or
uninformative as "do better" or "shape up" - if you
cannot be specific and say how, then keep quiet. While your team will
soon realize that this IS a formula, they will still enjoy the benefits
of the information (and training). You must not stint in praising good
work. If you do not acknowledge it, it may not be repeated simply
because no one knew you approved.
The work itself
The work itself should be interesting and
challenging. Interesting because this makes your staff actually engage
their attention; challenging because this maintains the interest and
provides a sense of personal achievement when the job is done. But few
managers have only interesting, challenging work to distribute: there is
always the boring and mundane to be done. This is a management problem
for you to solve. You must actually consider how interesting are the
tasks you assign and how to deal with the boring ones. Here are two
Firstly, make sure that everyone
(including yourself) has a share of the interesting and of the dull.
This is helped by the fact that what is dull to some might be new and
fascinating to others - so match tasks to people, and possibly share the
worst tasks around. For instance, taking minutes in meetings is dull on
a weekly basis but quite interesting/educational once every six weeks
(and also heightens a sense of responsibility). Secondly, if the task is
dull perhaps the method can be changed - by the person given the task.
This turns dull into challenging, adds responsibility, and might even
improve the efficiency of the team.
Of all of Herzberg's positive motivators,
responsibility is the most lasting. One reason is that gaining
responsibility is itself seen as an advancement which gives rise to a
sense of achievement and can also improve the work itself: a multiple
motivation! Assigning responsibility is a difficult judgement since if
the person is not confident and capable enough, you will be held
responsible for the resulting failure. Indeed, delegating responsibility
deserves another article in itself (see the article on Delegation).
There are two types of advancement: the
long-term issues of promotion, salary rises, job prospects; and the
short-term issues (which you control) of increased responsibility, the
acquisition of new skills, broader experience. Your team members will be
looking for the former, you have to provide the latter and convince them
that these are necessary (and possibly sufficient) steps for the
eventual advancement they seek. As a manager, you must design the work
assignment so that each member of the team feels: "I'm learning,
I'm getting on".
We are going to look at a simple system
for addressing people-problems. It is a step-by-step procedure which
avoids complex psychological models (which few managers can/should
handle) and which focuses upon tangible (and so controllable)
work of warning: this technique is often referred to as Behavioural
Modification (BM) and many balk at the connotations of
management-directed mind control. Do not worry. We are simply
recognising that staff behaviour IS modified by the work environment and
by your influence upon it. The technique is merely a method for
analysing that influence to ensure that it is positive and to focus it
to best use.
In any group of people there are bound
to be problems - as a manager, you have to solve or at least contain
them. You ignore them at your peril. Such problems are usually described
in terms like: "Alex is just lazy" or "Brenda is a
bad-tempered old has-been". On the one hand, such people can poison
the working environment; the other hand, these descriptions are totally
The underlying philosophy of BM is that
you should concentrate upon specific, tangible actions over which you
have influence. For instance "Alex is lazy" should be
transformed into "Alex is normally late with his weekly report and
achieves less than Alice does in any one week". Thus we have a
starting point and something which can be measured. No
generalities; only specific, observable behaviour.
Before proceeding, it is worth checking
that the problem is real - some "problems" are more appearance
than substance, some are not worth you time and effort. So, stage 1 is
to monitor the identified problem to check that it is real and to seek
simple explanations. For instance Alex might still be helping someone
with his old job.
Stage 2 is often missed - ask Alex for
his solution. This sort of interview can be quite difficult because you
run the danger of making personal criticism. Now you may feel that Alex
deserves criticism, but does it actually help? Your objective is to get
Alex to work well, not to indulge in personal tyranny. If you make it
personal, Alex will be defensive. He will either deny the problem, blame
someone else, blame the weather, tell you that he knows best or some
combination of the above. If, on the other hand, you present the
situation in terms of the specific events, you can focus upon Alex's own
view of the problem (why is this happening?) and Alex's own solution
(what can Alex do about it - can you help?).
Stage 2 will sometimes be sufficient.
If Alex had not realised there was a problem, he might act quickly to
solve it. If he had thought his behaviour would pass unnoticed, he now
knows differently. By giving Alex the responsibility for solving his own
problem, you can actually motivate him beyond the specific problem: he
may suggest on improved reporting system, or a short training course to
deal with a technical short-coming. Finally, the demonstration alone
that you are interested in Alex's work may be enough to make him
improve. Never assume that you know better, always ask first - then if
no solution is forthcoming, proceed to ...
Stage 3 is the analysis stage and is
based upon a simple model of behaviour: every action is preceded by a
trigger, and is followed by a consequence or payoff. Thus baby is hungry
(trigger), baby wails (action), baby gets fed (payoff); or the report is
due today (trigger), Alex goes for coffee break "to think about
it" (action), Alex has a relaxing afternoon (payoff).
Sometimes, good behaviour is blocked by
negative payoffs. For instance, if every time Clive informs his boss
Diane about a schedule change (action), Diane vents her annoyance on
Clive (payoff), then Clive will be less inclined to approach Diane with
information in the future. One of the problems with communication in
Ancient Greece was that the bearer of bad news was often executed.
Once you have analysed the problem,
stage 4 is to find a solution. With most people-problems at work, you
will find that the "bad" behaviour is reinforced by a payoff
which that person finds attractive. There are two solutions: 1) modify
the payoff either by blocking it, or by adding another consequence which
is negative, or 2) create a positive payoff for the alternative, desired
"good" behaviour. In the long term, the latter is preferable
since it is better for motivation to offer encouragement rather than
reprimand; optimally you should implement both.
This is where you have to be creative.
BM provides a manageable focus and a framework for analysis; you, as
manager, must provide the solution. It is best to work on one problem at
a time because this simplifies the analysis. Further, by addressing one,
other related problems are often affected also. Let us consider
"late reporting". Firstly, add a negative consequence to
Alex's current behaviour. State explicitly that you need the report by
3.30 on Friday (so that you can prepare your weekly schedule update) -
and, if this does not happen, summon Alex at four o'clock to demand the
report before he leaves for the weekend. This will probably ruin his
"hour before the weekend" and he will wish to avoid it.
Secondly, if Alex does get the report in by 3.30 make a habit of
responding to it on Monday morning: if there is an issue raised, help
Alex to solve it; if there is a schedule change, talk it over - but make
it clear (say it) that you are only able to do this because you had
time on Friday to read over his report. Thus Alex learns that he
will receive help and support IF he gets the report in on time.
Stage 5 is necessary because such plans
do not always work. You must continue to monitor the problem and after a
trial period, review your progress. If the plan is working, continue; if
the plan has failed, devise a new one; if the plan has worked, look for
a new problem to solve.
Where to Seek Solutions
The range of problems is so large, that
it is impossible to offer more than generalities as advise. Each person
is different, each situation is different, so each solution must be
carefully crafted. This being said, here are a few ideas.
Look for aspects of motivation - any
problem which stems from lack of commitment or interest can only
successfully be addressed by providing motivation, and any of the
motivators described earlier can be applied.
Be flexible with regards to personal
problems. No parent is immune to the "joys" of a new born
baby, no one is uneffected by bereavement. When circumstances and the
human factor impinge upon your ordered plans, adapt; since you cannot
change it, work with it. Focus upon the problem (say, schedule slippage)
and deal with that in the existing situation. For instance if you
sanction half a day's "sick-leave" to see a solicitor, you
might save a week's worry and distraction.
On a larger scale, look carefully at
the "systems" which exist in your team, at those work
practices which you and they follow through habit. Some of these can
work against you, and the team. For instance, the way you hold team
meetings may suppress contributions (at 4 o'clock on a Friday, say); the
way you reward the exceptional may demotivate those responsible for the
Take a long term view. Constant
pressure will eventually destroy your team members. If you acknowledge
that a relaxed yet engaged workforce is (say) 10% more efficient than
one which is over-stressed and fretful, then you should realize that
this amounts to half-a-day per week. So why not devote half-a-day to:
peer-group teaching, brainstorming on enhanced efficiency, visits to
customers (internal and external), guest lectures on work tools, or all
four on a four-weekly cycle. You lose nothing if you gain a skilled,
committed, enthusiastic team.
Finally, look carefully at how you
behave and whether the current situation is due to your previous
inattention to the human factor: you might be the problem, and the
M Blair is a Senior Lecturer in VLSI Design at the Department of
Electrical Engineering, The University of Edinburgh. His book Starting
to Manage: the essential skills is published by Chartwell-Bratt (UK)
and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (USA). He
welcomes feedback either by email (email@example.com) or by any
other method found here