Breaking the Effort Bias: Managing Self-Directed and Remote Team Members

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by Bill Sanders, Principal and Sr. Consultant with Roebling Strauss

Time to Read: 4 minutes

One of the greatest gifts I had early on in my career was at Mattel Interactive. I was hired to run a cross-functional team, half of which was remote in Cedar Rapids, IA. Because I had never before managed a remote team, I needed to improve my skillset immediately. Through mentors, reading, experimentation, and no small number of mistakes, I quickly learned how to manage an effective team when I didn’t know how, or even when, they were doing the work.

I took those lessons and leveraged them with the local half of the team as well. We weren’t doing anything considered radical at the time, but we were pushing responsibility and authority as close to the front line as possible. I’ve always appreciated and rewarded hard work, but I began to develop a bias for effectiveness and results that superseded any previous bias for effort.

Effort Bias

I regularly see a bias toward rewarding effort in many of our clients’ organizations. The culture rewards those that come in early, work late, and answer emails at 10 PM on the weekend-regardless of what they are actually accomplishing. While effort is critical, it is not sufficient. To add real value to an organization, everyone has to make an effective impact that generates results well over and above their compensation package. Typically, the target return is at least three times total compensation at a minimum.

This Effort Bias shows up in the questions I often hear client companies ask when someone requests to work remotely:

  • “How will I know they are putting in the time?”
  • “What is this going to do to productivity?”
  • “How am I going to manage the people I can’t see?”
  • “How are we going to insure that remote team members stay connected and are part of our culture?”

Making the Shift

When an Effort Bias is identified, the first issue is what to replace it with. My recommendation is an Effectiveness Bias – for the following reasons:

  1. It is easier and less time consuming to judge the quality of a deliverable than to monitor a team member’s effort. When quality criteria are defined in advance, organizations require less oversight and management because the only one responsible for the end result is the person actually doing the work. It is a shift from telling someone “how to do it” to communicating what you expect the outcome to be.
  2. A bias toward effectiveness forces the leader to define the objectives and communicate them clearly. Alignment around the objective is a crucial component of effective teams. Knowing what is expected and when it is expected is the first step. An Effectiveness Bias requires the defining of the Why and even the What a team endeavors to achieve, but it doesn’t define the step-by-step How.
  3. Focusing on effectiveness over effort releases the team to be more creative. Because it doesn’t define the step-by-step How, processes can be subject to improvement instead of becoming straight-jackets of bureaucracy or process for process’ sake. Individuals can feel free to experiment and improve on the existing systems to make them more effective.
  4. Losing the Effort Bias requires transparent accountability. Elevating effectiveness over effort requires individuals to become much better at making and keeping commitments; in short, self-management. In order to establish a virtuous cycle of ever increasing effectiveness, providing timely and transparent feedback is critical. Individuals must know how effective they are being and how well they are keeping their commitments so they can make the necessary changes to the How on their own.

It’s not easy bucking the established consensus. It’s not easy to recognize and replace our unconscious bias-especially in an organizational environment. But it is simple and it is the only way we can push more responsibility to be self-managed and responsive to the front line in our organizations.

Bill Sanders is Principal and Sr. Consultant with Roebling Strauss, a boutique consultancy that specializes in delivering dramatic improvements in organizational effectiveness and Co-Lead Link of the Finance Circle for Great Work Cultures, a community dedicated to creating a new norm for work cultures that optimize worker effectiveness and human happiness. Connect with Bill on twitter at @technacea.
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