bynkii (bynkii) wrote,

Santa Claus as a management example

Note: I realize that I may not be the first person to use Santa as an example here, but this is something that's been percolating for a while, and I've not, to my knowledge, read this anywhere else.

There is a tendency in humans, and therefore in business, to make everything "fair" and "equal". "Treat everybody the same" "We're all equal" While that sounds good, and looks good, the truth is, it is a recipe for disaster, because it ignores one basic human fact: We aren't all equal.

In any given group of people, you are going to have a bell curve of performance for any task. Some will excel, some will lag, most will be in the middle. The problem with the "treat everyone the same" meme is that it both punishes the good and rewards the wicked, and that is, at best, messed up. It's the kind of thinking that leads a company to kill a benefit for hundreds, even thousands of people because a single, or handful of people abused it, or worse, because there was a potential for abuse. Conversely, it keeps an organization from really rewarding top performers, because they "don't want everyone else to feel bad".

This is done under the guise of "being fair" but in reality, it's more along the lines of Harrison Bergeron, and enforced sameness. It handicaps those who would normally excel, and promotes those who would normally not be able to do the work. It creates, basically, Dilbert, or an atmosphere where no one wants to excel, because there's no point. You're all treated the same, from the biggest slacker, to the most insane overachiever. Not surprisingly, the latter group dwindles quickly in such an environment.

Another problem with this kind of thinking is that you quickly lose any cool programs, either due to a small amount of people abusing them, or the fear of abuse. Note that when the answer to abuse is to kill the program, that almost never coincides with punishing the wrongdoer. Instead, everyone gets screwed twice. The first time, because they lost a program, even though they didn't do anything wrong, and the second time due to the inevitable attempt to "prevent" wrongdoing from ever occurring again. It's funny how unfair this is to the people doing the right thing, yet that unfairness is okay. But then, cognitive dissonance is what humans do best.

An example of just how stupid this can be. At one place I worked, we had this great, simple program. Anyone could give someone else in a different department a reward for doing a great job, or just being a great help. You emailed the office manager, and she got a fifty - dollar gift card from the local mall, which she put in an envelope with a nice note, and gave to the recipient. The only "rules" were that you couldn't nominate yourself, and you couldn't continually nominate people in your own department. That was it, really. It worked great. No abuse. None. I can't give you specifics as to why, but I think it was that the program treated you like an adult, and people responded positively to that.

We get a new CFO in, and he suddenly wants to change things to "prevent abuse". There was no abuse, but there was also no "process to prevent abuse". So after he got done, you had to nominate someone, with the proper form and backing documentation, and once a month the "employee reward committee" met, and they would decide who was "worthy" of an award that month. Not that there was a guarantee that someone would get it. After all, he had to raise the standards to ensure the person getting that gift card had properly earned it and of course, that there was no abuse going on. The program died so fast there was never a first meeting. I mean, he did prevent abuse, but it was in the same way that decapitation prevents infected sinuses. The rewards stopped, and morale went down as well.

See, the problem is, when make "preventing abuse" the prime focus of setting up a benefit or really, anything, you tell people "We don't trust you a bit, so we're going to make sure you can't mess this up." Great message. The sad thing is, it never works. Abuse not only still happens, but I'd wager, it happens more than before. Hey, you already assume I'm a scoundrel, I may as well act the part.

So how can Santa Claus help us out? Well, what does Santa do? He rewards the good and punishes the wicked. Good kids get toys, wicked kids get coal. Santa doesn't leave the good kids a note saying "Well, because all of you weren't good, you all get coal again." Nor does he give the wicked kids toys so they won't feel bad. Each group gets the appropriate reward or punishment due their group.

If you have an employee, or group of employees that are abusing the system, screwing off, whatever, don't punish everyone to bring them in line. Fire them, and hire new people who aren't assholes. There's a lot of smart people with a clue out there. Really. Or don't fire them, there's other ways to punish them. But don't hose the entire company just because a few people are nimrods. That's not fair, that's just stupid. By the same token, reward excellence in meaningful ways. If someone gets all their work done in a most excellent way by 2pm, and they don't have a reason to stick around for another three hours other than some policy, let them go home early. But John, then eeeeveryone will want to leave early! I say "Good!". Because when they whine, point out why Bill gets to leave early, or come in late, or work from home more, or whatever. Tell them "You start working the way Bill works, you get Bill treatment. You want to be mediocre, you get mediocre treatment." If they complain that it's not fair, then say, "No, it's perfectly Bill. He's earned special treatment, you have not. Hence the name "Special" treatement. Should you wish to perform at Bill's level, then you too shall have special treatment too."

In other words, you give the good children toys, and the wicked ones get coal. Why? Because contrary to stupid belief, people are not all the same. Some of us are smarter, taller, faster, more talented in certain areas, stronger, etc., yadda. I can fix networks, my fiance, Melissa, can paint and draw. Should we be treated as though we have the exact same abilities and aptitudes? Only if you're an idiot. I mean, she's not stupid by any means, but you don't want her troubleshooting your Open Directory problems. By the same token, I can draw a mean stick figure, but you probably don't want me doing your family portraits. To treat everyone exactly the same is to literally say "your skills and abilities don't count, because we're all the same here". At that point, why not make them all where matching jumpsuits and refer to them by number?

Sure, the wicked kids whine when they get coal, or more honestly, because they didn't get a cool toy, but so what? Most times, they are not doing much more than not getting fired. What do you want, a company full of Bills or a company full of people not getting fired? Let me ask you this, do you want to kick ass, or watch someone else do it? Punishing all for the actions of a few doesn't really hurt the few, but it totally hoses over the rest. That's a recipe for resentment and increased resume posting. Treating your top performer exactly the same as your bottom feeders won't change the behavior of the latter, and will drive the former away, probably to your competition. Is that really what you want?

So don't knock Santa Claus, you could learn a lot from a jolly old elf.
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