20 Dec 2016 19:32 IST

Dealing with values

Values applied to work processes and selection reduce friction and improve productivity

This is the story of a very successful sales engineer. Let’s call him X. He was great at his job and could sell really well. But he would always claim the entire credit for orders won by him. This would be reasonable or acceptable if he was selling simple products.

But X was selling industrial machinery that needed team effort, involving design engineers working with the sales team to put together proposals and estimations. The prospective customers were located across the world, and selling to them required collating information from other sales engineers.

However, X, though a sales engineer himself, would not share information, which led to other sales personnel losing some deals. So, despite good individual performance, X caused not just business loss, but also managed to affect the morale of others in the company because of his attitude.

Ground reality

The above story is by no means a one-off case. We keep coming across such people. Often, managers discover such problems late, and are then confronted with dilemmas — what do you do with good performers who have corrosive attitudes?

You must have heard this sage advice — ‘Hire for attitude, and train for skills’. Now, using the two questions given below, conduct a little informal survey:

~ When you were hired for your current job, was it based on your attitude or more as a result of your experience in the same line?

~ If you are the CEO or a manager or a HR Head, what would you do when you last came across a person whose attitude clearly was not suitable for his/her work?

It is quite likely that ‘attitude’ had little bearing in the first test and nothing much could be done about it in the second test.

It is difficult to detect a person’s attitude or values in typical selection processes. Knowledge and certain skills can be tested. Similarly, once a person is hired and found to have an attitude problem, all you can do is counsel them, and hope that it helps. Another option would be to assign other work to such an employee. Counselling has a limited effect because values, attitudes, or beliefs are far more hard-wired in our minds than we think.

What do you want?

However, there’s another problem — we don’t precisely know what values we should be looking for in our people or employees.

When asked to define what values they would look for in their employees, most managers will rattle off a list — integrity, honesty, capacity for hard work, speed, quality of output, openness, flexibility, innovativeness, discipline, and so on. Even if it is possible to find people with all these values, it may not always work out for the best. For example, conflicts may arise between flexibility and discipline, and the need for speed may compromise on quality.

In most organisations, such dilemmas are resolved through conventions. There are unwritten rules about what is permissible and what is not. Newcomers quickly learn these and either fall in line or create problems. What is called ‘culture’ is basically a result of conformity and occasional tussles with unwritten rules.

The arrangement

The problem with the above arrangement is that it is not an arrangement at all! Unwritten codes are unintentionally ingrained, and, so, when an organisation needs to change, such hard-wired values present big challenges.

The flexibility and experimentation encouraged in a start-up phase can become hindrances during its scaling-up phase, when there is a need for well-settled processes. This phase requires that areas of innovation and experimentation be more clearly defined so that operational processes can be made repeatable and dependable. It means that values or attitudes need to be understood and defined in the context of day-to-day work.

Big words like ‘integrity’ or ‘innovation’ need to be converted into criteria that can be applied to decide what is acceptable and what is not, with a well-defined scope. For example, it must be clarified that integrity to society ranks higher than integrity to the company.

Gaming the pollution tests of a new car model may have served the short-term interests of some bosses. But, once it was discovered, it caused incalculable damage to the company’s brand and goodwill.

Performance boost

Accounting work or product testing work needs a high degree of meticulousness and lower levels of creativity. Therefore, a person with a creative attitude will not only get bored in such jobs, but may also cause damage. On the other hand, ‘creative accounting’ or ‘short-cuts in testing’ aren’t good for an organisation’s health.

When values are applied to work processes and selection or placement of people, they reduce friction and improve productivity. They help best use of talent. They prevent hard wiring of organisational weaknesses. When correctly applied and practised, values provide a performance boost.