A Story for You to Consider as You Assess and Interact with Your Employees!
Let’s call her Julie
Julie has been with ABC Widgets for 10 years.
Julie is a stellar performer, always comes to work on time, gets her job done, her results are always excellent, and she’s a team player. It’s easy to like and depend on Julie because you know what she’s capable of and she always lives up to your expectations. Expectations and performance go hand-in-hand. Consequently, because Julie is expected to do well, encouraged at every step along the way, and receives positive reinforcement, she flourishes and her performance is stellar.
NOTE: There is absolutely nothing wrong with positive reinforcement and employees are not weak because they need it! Know your employees, let them know you appreciate and expect great things from them, and they will respond accordingly.
Let’s call him Jon
Jon is new to the company. During the hiring process, Jon blew everyone away. The way he carried himself was impressive, the results of his hiring assessment was nothing short of amazing, and his interviews were first-rate. To add to the overall excitement, Jon’s recommendations, all 12 of them, were the best many of the HR people at ABC Widgets had ever seen. In fact, the HR manager broke with tradition and introduced Jon to the president of ABC Widgets before the final hiring decision had been made.
In everyone’s view, Jon was a slam dunk!
Jon was going to be The Golden Boy and solve all of ABC’s production problems. Furthermore, the HR director, also a VP at ABC Widgets, and the president of the company felt Jon was just the guy to bridge the gap between sales, marketing, and production…a gap that had always been such a problem at ABC!
The future looked bright for Jon and for ABC Widgets!
The title of the position Jon was interviewing for was Production Manager, but it was an executive-level position. And Jon was replacing a series of bad hires, production managers that really didn’t have the tools to get the job done.
Significantly, neither the title nor the job description had changed in decades. And over the past few years ABC Widgets had tried every hiring strategy in the book to bring in the right sort of individual to turn things around. In fact, the president had sequestered the entire HR staff at a local resort for a long weekend in order to brainstorm. They knew they had a problem and Jon seemed to be the solution!
The HR staff had one task that weekend:
Figure out why ABC Widgets cannot seem to get it right when it comes to hiring a production manager who will deliver.
Coming away from the weekend the HR staff had one goal:
Find, hire, and keep a Production Manager who’d measure up and, ultimately, turn ABC Widgets’ production department around.
Jon emerged as a candidate who seemingly had it all.
It’s said that even the president of ABC Widgets went into his office, closed the door, and did a backflip after meeting Jon…maybe more than one!
His son did a backflip!
His daughter did a backflip!
Well, his wife tried to do a backflip!
And even Tough Guy, their dog and company mascot, did a backflip!
So, how did Jon work out?
As Hamlet would have said…and did…
”Ay, there’s the rub!”
As mentioned, Jon was walking into a very complex situation, a situation that would entail overcoming a history of bad hires and several failed attempts to revamp the production of widgets at ABC Widgets. Jon had envisioned a complete restructuring of ABC’s production process because, without it, ABC would continue to fail…and Jon along with the company.
Jon knew all of that going in…but he was optimistic!
Furthermore, Jon knew his reputation was on the line. But all of that aside, Jon had been given the assurances we’d asked for during the interview process. As a result of those assurances, Jon was confident he could get the job done. Additionally, Jon was led to believe he would have the sort of latitude to make the necessary decisions, implement the necessary programs, and hire the right people to make it all happen.
So, what happened?
Well, the first time Jon did something a little different he was questioned about it.
In fact, he was grilled!
The first time the production department failed to reach their quota, Jon was chastised.
You see, Jon had taken a long view. He had to if ABC was going to turn around. In fact, it was one of the reasons he’d accepted the job, we was assured everyone had the same sort of vision. Jon believed he shared the same vision with the company president about how to turn things around.
Jon was told more than once, and by more than one company executive, that they “had his back.”
Jon also realized, and right from the start, that if all he did was mimic what everyone else in the widget industry was doing, ABC would not make it!
So, based on the interviews, the assurances, and the absolute need of the company, Jon assumed he would have the budget to do what was necessary to get the job done.
Jon was wrong!
It wasn’t long before the backflipping president (remember him?) was complaining to everyone who would listen about every decision Jon made and expense the production department incurred.
Incredibly, almost from the start, the president of ABC Widgets was threatening to replace Jon!
Consequently, the first time the production department failed to meet their quota, and in fact showed a loss, Jon was grilled. In spite of the fact that the department was moving in the right direction, and losses were less than they had been at any point in the past 10 years, Jon felt as though he might lose his job!
Because, while Jon’s entrance had been heralded with celebration and praise, once Jon stepped into his new position, the same position every one of his failed predecessors was fired from, he was just another production manager! Sadly, every employee, from the janitors and machinists to the foremen and the executives, were just waiting for another production manager failure. In the minds of almost everyone at ABC Widgets, Jon was just another production manager. Consequently, all the baggage that came with the position was simply too heavy to crawl out from under…the expectations, based on the history of previous individuals who’d held the position, were just too low.
Well, Julie kept getting the praise she needed and, as a result, kept delivering. Julie was happy, content, and fulfilled…and her performance reflected it. But Julie had been hired into a newly created position…a very distinct difference. Significantly, Julie was not replacing several employees who had failed prior to her arrival. Consequently, when Julie arrived at ABC Widgets and took her desk, the employees she worked with saw only Julie…both as Julie and in the context of a newly created position.
Starting to see the picture(s)?
Jon was not so lucky.
And before long, Jon started to wonder why he’d taken the job.
“How could I not have seen the signs? How could I have walked into this mess?” he asked.
Here’s the Key
When the employees at ABC Widgets looked at Jon they saw every predecessor. How could they not? He even had the same title! So, it wasn’t long before Jon hated coming into work and hated himself for making such a huge mistake. The worst part, at least for Jon, was that he felt trapped!
How did this happen?
Well, the mind is a powerful instrument and it is very difficult to think positively if all you can see are the failures of the past. The problem wasn’t with Jon, the problem was that everyone at ABC Widgets saw what they’d been programmed to see. In fact, most didn’t see Jon at all…they saw the production manager. Worse yet, they saw every production manager before Jon in some sort of production manager collage. Even if they wanted to see something different, all they could see was just another production manager…complete with the history and baggage of the past.
The fact of the matter is that many of ABC’s employees liked Jon and knew, on some level, knew were being unfair. But the harder they tried to get the other production managers out of their minds, and the harder they tried to remove the mistakes previous production managers had made from their thoughts, the more they saw that collage.
They saw only “white bears!”
“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (Fyodor Dostoevsky 1863)
In other words, the more an employee at ABC Widgets tried not to see something, in this case a long line of failed production managers, the more they saw exactly that!
Here’s a current and perhaps more interesting way of looking at a very similar phenomenon…and the way we perceive the world.
I think you’ll agree, all the other employees of ABC Widgets saw was basketball passes.
The first time through, what did you see?
I’m betting you saw, as so many others before you, the basketball players throwing passes! However, once you were aware of the dancing gorilla, it was easy to pick out. It’s all about attribution!
The fictional Jon and Julie were hired into two very different positions at the also fictional ABC Widgets. Julie was hired into a newly created position with no baggage, no preconceived notions based on past successes or failures. Jon, on the other hand, was doomed from the start. He was hired into a position with heavy baggage and nothing but preconceived notions. Because every production manager before Jon had failed, and failed miserably, the employees of ABC Widgets couldn’t help but see Jon in that light.
Well, for the sake of this article and the point we are trying to make, the wisest thing for the backflipping president of ABC Widgets to do would have been to hire Jon into a newly created position…one without preconceived notions and without the history of failure the production manager’s position carried with it.
Far too many times, an individual is hired to fill a position just like the one in our example above, the example of the production manager. As for Julie’s position goes? Well, Julie had a better than average shot of making it at ABC Widgets precisely because she was hired into a newly created position…one without preconceived notions and without a history of failure. In fact, in Julie’s case, there was no history at all…so Julie was free to carve out her own niche within the guidelines specified for her position.
NOTE: This is obviously a fictional account. However, this sort of thing happens throughout corporate America every day.
The use of hiring and performance assessments is crucial for success…that’s a given. But an awareness of how preconceived notions and the power of attribution can impact the hiring process cannot be understated. We hope this fictional account, the story of Jon and Julie, has helped to frame this point.
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