Let it go! HR practices we know don’t work but use anyway

by Isabel Wu

In 2014 we have the benefit of technology that allows us to see inside a working brain and compute massive amounts of research data to give us a never-before-available understanding of human behaviour.  This has significant benefits for those of us who are responsible for improving the outcomes from people at work.

If the main responsibility of human resources, other than employment administration is the implementation of programs that improve productivity (although this objective is due for a review too, but I’ll save it for another day), new knowledge about the circumstances under which people’s performance will improve should be of great interest to the human resources professional.

Rather most HR programs continue to cling to outdated models.  Here are five errors upon which human resources bases programs that cost thousands of dollars, and countless hours of managers’ time to implement even though they do not do what they claim to do.

1. Financial incentives improve performance

Wrong. Dan Pink in his book, Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us (Riverhead Hardcover, 2009), described the work of researchers from MIT, the University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon University who undertook a series of experiments to test the impact of financial rewards on performance.  The researchers were able to demonstrate that for all but purely mechanical tasks (i.e. where no thought process whatsoever is required), monetary rewards have a detrimental effect on performance.

Money does affect performance, of course.  It communicates a management desire for certain outcomes which can imply (the organisational culture plays a significant role in this) a sanctioning of behaviours that will facilitate these outcomes.  The obscene bonuses received by bank employees even while their employers were receiving billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts is such an example.

2. Setting goals leads to greater motivation

No, they don’t.  Most organisations operate on the basis that giving individuals goals to achieve will encourage motivation, in turn leading to more outcomes being achieved.  The ‘logic’ is we can create a level of dissatisfaction in the employee with their current state; and if we draw a direct link between current/immediate performance and goal attainment the employee will work harder to achieve that goal. Motivation is affected by too many other factors, such as goal conflict, a sense of fairness, unconscious biases and the environment in which problem-solving occurs, to expect that a hypothetical future target can override all other influences.

Progressive achievement towards a goal is far more effective for stimulating motivation.  (Learn more about this from Dr Jason Fox).

3. Goals work if we choose the ones that will make us happy

We are terrible predictors of what will make us happy.  Goals are usually linked to personal ambitions on the theory that if the personal goal is attainable via the achievement of the work goal, a win-win situation is created for everybody.  In his book, Stumbling on Happiness (Knopf, 2006), Daniel Gilbert provides three reasons why this is flawed reasoning:

  1. We think we can imagine the future as a whole. The classic example is the number of people who swear that winning the lotto would guarantee their happiness, yet subsequent studies show that winners are usually no happier than they were before their windfall and in some cases disastrously miserable.
  2. Our vision of future is based on our present. We might think that our longed-for promotion, or spending the rest of my life with this person, will make me happy forever, but we cannot include in our imagined future the changes that will happen.
  3. We are not good at recognising our future situations and how things look when they actually happen. For example, the person who is convinced cosmetic surgery will fix the source of their unhappiness, only to believe that they have not gone far enough in judging the level of correction they should have made and need to keep ‘fixing’ the problem.

4. We are Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic learners

Totally unproven.  Identifying VAK learning preferences has become a foundation principle of adult learning theory.  It suggests that individuals are more likely to learn if teachers change their teaching method to suit the learning style of the individual.  The VAK model was developed by teachers for early school learners and was never developed scientifically and has never been proven scientifically.  While people may prefer material to be delivered to them in a specific format, there is no evidence that changing the method of delivery has an impact on learning.  It ignores the role that the type of content plays in learning.  For example, learning geography is going to be more effective if you can see maps, images of terrain and climate, and how these may have affected culture such as food and dress.  Learning to ride a bicycle will be a ‘kinaesthetic’ process no matter how much your ‘learning style’ says you are an ‘auditory’ or ‘visual’ learner.

There is proof, however that learning needs a change in the brain, and this change requires physical activity.  Learning is therefore not going to happen with people sitting in a classroom passively taking on information, no matter how brilliant the presenter may be at VAK-oriented delivery.

5. Feedback helps people to improve performance

Here is a typical explanation how performance appraisals work: “Effective and timely feedback is a critical component of a successful performance management program and should be used in conjunction with setting performance goals. If effective feedback is given to employees on their progress towards their goals, employee performance will improve. People need to know in a timely manner how they’re doing, what’s working, and what’s not.”

Only this explanation is wrong. The performance appraisal system works by helping individuals understand where they have gaps between their current performance and their target performance, and what they can do about them.  This means that all feedback is, in essence, negative (even when it is positive it is still presented in the context of “this is good, but still more is needed”).

Neuroscientists have clearly identified that our brains are fundamentally protective.  Even though threats in the workplace are rarely about survival, our lizard brains are hard-wired to protect us from threats.  We instantly develop an ‘away’ response which may mean rationalising or rejecting the information we receive. If the information is in conflict with our self-image we will change the information, rather than change ourselves. It is not merely a case of ego or vanity. Research shows that a cohesive understanding of our self is vital to our health and well-being.

The brain also recognises facial expressions the eye cannot see.  It guides our instincts about the intentions of others.  When managers rate conducting performance appraisals as the task they dislike most other than firing an employee, it is no surprise that neuroscience shows physical pain is caused to both the receiver and the giver of the feedback. It is no wonder that a meta-analysis conducted by psychologists on 607 studies of performance evaluations concluded that at least 30% of the performance reviews ended up in decreased employee performance

When you consider how much of the work of human resources is based on these five flawed approaches alone you would think some major overhaul is overdue.  The question is whether companies are able to admit that so much that they have set store by is so wrong.