I was spellbound. Here I was not reading a book about teams, but listening to the wisdom of a team who had lived it day in and day out. This experience occurred during a recent workshop on workplace safety. I had the privilege of working with a high-performing team that has a stellar safety record. The purpose of the workshop was to invite additional dialogue regarding a survey the team had taken. The plan was to seek additional detail and nuance about what they were thinking, feeling, and the experiences that influenced their ratings in this survey that measured areas of safety in their workplace ranging from corporate ethics to hazard recognition.
While others took some time to warm to the task, this group was immediately engaged. They didn’t need encouragement or assurances of confidentiality. They jumped right in to a lively dialogue on each section. It wasn’t long before my curiosity was killing me—how was this group so invested, open, engaged, honest, and committed not just to safety, but to everything else they did?
So I gently interrupted our conversation. “Can I deviate for a moment from the agenda and ask what drives your team and keeps all of you invested and committed to what you’re doing and how you do it?” Immediately, they started to share the glue that binds them together in their common pursuit of safety and performance.
The first thing out of their mouths was a statement that indicated they each held a sense of common mission and purpose that drove their thinking, feelings and behavior. “We are very aware that what we do is very dangerous. One mistake has the potential to not only injure one of us—it could also have serious consequences for the people at this plant and the surrounding community. We don’t ever want that to happen.”
What came next was, “We know each other and we care about each other.” And the caring extends to wives, children, girlfriends, and boyfriends. “We know a lot about each others’ families; we know their names, what schools they go to, the sports they play, and when things are going good and not so good. When you know people’s families, you have a deeper understanding that what we’re doing and how we’re doing it has far-reaching consequences. This also helps us to keep in touch with how a person is doing personally, and sometimes we pitch in to give a coworker a break when he or she needs it.”
We agree to disagree. “It’s taken us some time, but we’ve come to the conclusion that disagreeing is just part of life. We don’t get that upset anymore when we disagree. We give each other space and sooner rather than later we come around and work things out. We know that nothing is more important than safety and that keeps us from going off on each other.”
We take personal accountability for our actions. “This has also taken us some time, but we’ve come to accept that we are the ones who can make a difference. It doesn't do us any good to complain, blame and look to somebody else to make our decisions. Our behavior and choices make the biggest difference, and we feel more secure and satisfied being accountable and in control.”
This team had no formal training in teamwork; they had only learned from their experiences and continued to put what worked into practice. This created a culture in which purpose, accountability, respect, caring, and dialogue was the glue that kept them safe and performing to their individual and team best. They are what books are written about.
That evening, I reflected again on the special opportunity I had to join in on these insightful and inspiring discussions. It became clear that what I teach and facilitate is what this group had intuitively and experientially put into practice. Their culture is infused with intrinsic motivation. They are motivated from the inside out. No one is dangling carrots or rewards or threatening them with consequences if they don’t act responsibly. They act safely and responsibly because it matters to them, and they take ownership and pride in it.
Self-Determination Theory informs us that if people are given or find a sense of purpose in what they do; if they are given the resources, permission and support to have autonomy in making decisions; the encouragement and opportunity to develop relationships with each other and their managers; and the ability to influence the things that matter most to them—they will not only achieve, they will thrive.
This team thrives in a very difficult environment. They do hard and dangerous work. Their success can be framed in a theoretical model, but what is most impressive is their commitment to make it stick—they are the glue.
© Tom Wojick, The Renewal Group, September 2012
My colleague and I had a great visit to Galveston and a very positive, affirming and learning experience at the National Safety Council’s Texas Conference and Expo, the theme of which was The Pursuit of Continuous Improvement: a Journey to Safety Excellence. Our presentation, “A Path To Sustainable Zero,” was well received and generated many comments and questions from the participants. One said, “It’s refreshing to hear about a program that gets to the heart of what safety is really about.” Another offered, “I wish more companies had the courage to take an honest look at and approach to safety.”
In addition to presenting, we also had the opportunity to listen and learn from the experiences of other safety professionals. One of the presentations I attended was on initiating a behavioral-based safety program. The presenter outlined the key steps in the process: form a committee, create observation checklists and train employees to be observers who know how to use the checklists. He emphasized that it was critical to take blame out of the observations so that trust can be built. He further commented that without trust the program would never be accepted and it could not produce results. And then the “ah-ha!” moment: in response to a question concerning implementation, the presenter said, “Before you can even begin the process, you (management) must make decisions on what you want and what roles you want employees to play.” There it is. The defining paradigm, or worldview, that is the foundation of most safety programs. It is one in which management operates from a core belief that employees are not interested, capable or trustworthy enough to make the “right decisions” pertaining to their safety and to the safety of their co-workers. And it is this core belief that causes organizations to lose the war on safety.
Daniel Pink states in his book Drive, “Organizations still operate from assumptions about human potential that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science.” This is why organizations continue to search for the holy grail of safety without realizing it is their core world view about human motivation and potential that is the impediment to building and sustaining a high-performing safety culture. They are constricted and bound by antiquated 20th century science on human motivation.
Edward Deci, Ph.D, a pioneer in the Self-Determination Theory, says, “Unfortunately, we observe many mangers and academics who doggedly cling to the now discredited tools of command-and-control methods; these methods ensure the death of employees’ motivation and pro-active engagement in work.” I doubt that there is a “Holy Grail of Safety,” but I’m convinced that the path to building and sustaining a high-performing safety culture is not found by following and applying folklore science and discredited tools of command and control management, which is why “A Path To Sustainable Zero” adheres to a view that nurtures the intrinsic importance of safety.
“A Path To Sustainable Zero” operates from the belief that employees want to be safe and that they care about the safety of each other, and if given the opportunity and trust to demonstrate these intrinsic values they will not disappoint themselves, their co-workers or their organization.
In a recent “what do we want” focus group, a handful of employees crafted the following statement:
“I want to work in an environment that regards my personal safety as a top priority so I can fully engage in my work. I want to feel respected and cared for and to experience satisfaction in the work I perform.”
It’s not managements’ role to force safety on their employees but rather to encourage and allow it to emerge from within them. This statement validates that employees deeply care about safety and that the role of management is to provide the resources, support and training safety leaders and supervisors need to foster and monitor the development of their employees’ intrinsic motivation to create and sustain a safe workplace.
It isn’t perfect and it does take time for employees to trust the transition to a totally new model and approach to safety. Remember that they’ve been trained in Skinner’s operant conditioning system, which believes animals must be trained with carrots and sticks in order to perform. However, if management stays on the new path with the conviction that employees are capable and invested in creating a safe workplace, it won’t be long before employees become fully engaged and everyone experiences the benefits and rewards of a high performing safety culture.
Flying Against the Winds of Science – Culture versus Strategy
Why Southwest's Culture eats USAIRWAY's Strategy
I’ve been doing considerable research and development of programs for workforce motivation, engagement and the role of incentives and rewards in building a culture of performance. What I have discovered is that incentives and rewards are primitive tools of the 20th century carrot and stick approach to motivating employees performance, and at best they only affect short-term results and come with great risk.
With this in mind I was fascinated to find two articles about separate companies exemplifying and employing the best and worst forms of employee motivation. The first company is one operating in the 21st century but still mired in 20th century beliefs about motivation and utilizing 20th century tools to accomplish its mission. The second has a record of consistent excellence in operating performance and employee and customer satisfaction for more than 20 years, with a focus on building and sustaining a high performing culture by utilizing a proven model of motivation that taps into the intrinsic desires of employees and customers.
My interest was piqued not just because of the content of the articles; I was also interested because I am a customer of both organizations and have a personal understanding of how their approaches to workforce motivation impact my experience. And I can attest that there is a significant difference.
The two companies are USAir Ways (USAir) and Southwest Airlines. I am a frequent customer of USAir – in fact, I just achieved Platinum status in their air miles program – and am an occasional user of Southwest. This is only because USAir provides better routes to my most frequent destinations. Therefore I use them out of convenience, not preference.
On one particular trip I wanted to make an intermediate stop before heading to my final destination. I chose Southwest on this occasion because it had a better schedule at similar rates. The hotel I was staying at provided me a complementary copy of USA Today, which I decided would make good reading on the plane. As I was scanning the headlines, one in particular caught my eye: “US Airways makes progress.” It chronicled how the company found itself ranked low on many indicators of passenger satisfaction, such as baggage handling, and how it recently achieved top ratings compared to other “legacy carriers,” which Southwest is not. The article stated that the company had to dramatically boost performance and one key initiative it instituted to aid in this was an incentive program called Triple Play Bucks, which pays employees when the company achieves top billing in a number of categories. It went on to say that employees have received $350.00 each this year for a total of 13.1 million dollars distributed to employees.
The second article, “Gary’s Greeting,” by Southwest’s CEO Gary Kelly, which appeared in the airline’s Spirit magazine, discussed the importance of corporate culture and how the company has worked diligently to keep it vibrant for more than 20 years. Kelly stated, “Your business plan is what you are, but culture is who you are,” and the article noted the significance of Southwest’s Culture Committee, which consists of employees from each major work location meeting quarterly to share ideas on how to keep their culture vibrant, meaningful and strong. The article highlighted the three qualities that define their culture: “A Warrior Spirit,” “A Servant’s Heart” and “A FunLUVing Attitude.”
A statement from Southwest’s investor relations web page notes, “Southwest is one of the most honored airlines in the world known for its commitment to the triple bottom line of Performance, People and Planet.” One could be skeptical and say this is a heap of self-promotion. However, Southwest was honored by receiving an Employees’ Choice Award as one of the top 50 best places to work in 2012 – an award 150,000 companies competed for, all rated and ranked by their employees. Southwest came in 17th and the competition included companies such Google, Facebook, Nike, and Starbucks. No other airline was ranked in the top 50. Both airlines have accomplished a lot, however it appears USAir is still trapped in 20th century thinking and strategy about motivation. I am making this assertion because of the use of the Triple Pay Bucks, which is a purely extrinsic, carrot and stick tool to buy performance. This ploy is fraught with risks and is difficult to sustain. When will employees begin to complain that $350.00 isn’t enough to behave in a manner that endears customers? Will USAir be willing to up the ante if necessary? What if oil spikes because of a world crisis and the company feels the need to cut costs? These are a few of the pitfalls for pay-for-performance schemes. I have had firsthand experience working with a company that compensated employees to serve on a committee to provide an important internal service in the organization, and when the organization made a decision to reduce compensation they lost members and now cannot recruit new ones. There is another factor to consider that is identified in numerous employee engagement surveys: employees who work hard eventually come to resent co-workers and the company as a whole when slackers receive the same rewards. What is most troublesome about USAir’s strategy is that since the 1970s this type of extrinsic motivation program has been proven to be a failure. One of the pioneers in researching human and organizational motivation is Edward Deci, Ph.D Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester. In this quote from his book Why We Do What We Do, he succinctly articulates the core issue: “When people say that money motivates, what they really mean is that money controls. And when it does, people become alienated – they give up some of their authenticity –and they push themselves to do what they think they must do. One take on the meaning of alienation is that it begins as people lose touch with their intrinsic motivation, with the vitality and excitement that all children have.” Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, states, “The problem is that most businesses haven’t caught up to this understanding of what motivates us. Too many organizations – not just companies, but governments and non-profits as well – still operate from assumptions about human potential and individual performance that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than science. They continue to pursue practices such as short-term incentive plans and pay-for-performance schemes in the face of mounting evidence that such measure usually don’t work and often do harm.”
As many companies do, USAir took the easy way to achieve a strategy, possibly not realizing or caring about building a positive, high-performing company culture for the long term. A familiar quote goes, “Culture eats strategy for lunch,” to which I can’t help but add, “There are no free lunches.” The opportunity to build a service culture may have been lost for USAir; surely they’ve lost the opportunity to ignite the intrinsic motivation waiting to be released in their employees.
It is also important to note that for some employees, programs like Triple Pay Bucks can be perceived as an insult, because it insinuates a lack of respect, concern and personal pride that they take in their job – something that management assumes they can stimulate with the metaphorical dangling carrot.
Alternately, I must share one example of how I experienced Southwest’s spirited, heartened and fun-loving culture. On a 45-minute flight (air time), Southwest’s flight attendants started to take drink orders as the flight was taxiing. Once the plane reached a safe altitude they put a drink and a bag of peanuts in every passenger’s hand and did so with a smile. On a recent USAir flight of the same duration, as well as same route, a flight attendant announced after takeoff that there would be no beverage service because of the short duration. That is the absence of any kind of spirit and no amount of Triple Pay Bucks will instill it.
I will continue to fly USAir because it is convenient. I don’t have high expectations; therefore I only occasionally get upset at the absence of service and caring. I look forward to opportunities when I can fly Southwest and experience what it is like to be a customer taken care of by genuinely happy, motivated employees.
The Renewal Group has developed programs to assist companies in developing high-performance cultures by awakening, inspiring and empowering intrinsic motivation and human potential. Our Partners in Safety Program demonstrates how companies by utilizing intrinsic motivation concepts and tools can build high-performing safety cultures within their organizations and The Edge Program provides leaders and managers with the concepts and tools to unleash intrinsic motivation in their employees and our Relationship - Centered Leadership program assists leaders in developing the Seven Hallmarks of Leadership that build their power to inspire and influence employee engagement.
Postscript: On a later flight on USAir I met a flight attendant who makes a difference not because of triple bucks, but because he is intrinsically motivated. I'll share this story on a blog soon to be posted
Time: April 26- 28, 2011