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Published: July 14, 2014
 / Autumn 2014 / Issue 76

 
 

Three Secrets of Organizational Effectiveness

How the practices of “pride builders” can help you develop a high-performance culture.

When the leaders of a major retail pharmacy chain set out to enhance customer satisfaction, market research told them that the number one determinant would be friendly and courteous service. This meant changing the organizational culture in hundreds of locations—creating an open, welcoming atmosphere where regular customers and employees knew one another’s names, and any question was quickly and cheerfully answered.

If you’re trying to instill this kind of organizational change in your company, then you face not just a logistical shift, but a cultural challenge as well. Employees will have to think differently, see people differently, and act in new ways: going the extra mile for shoppers, helping them articulate what they’re looking for, and working harder to keep items from getting out of stock. Employees also need to continually reinforce the right habits in one another so that the customer experience is on their minds everywhere, not just at the pharmacy or checkout counter, but in the aisles and back room as well. Conventional efforts to make this happen by “changing the organizational culture” in a programmatic fashion won’t get the job done.

One method that can help is known as pride building. This is a cultural intervention in which leaders seek out a few employees who are already known to be master motivators, adept at inspiring strategic awareness among their colleagues. These master motivators are invited to recommend specific measures that enable better ways of working. It’s noteworthy that pride builders in a wide variety of companies and industries tend to recommend three specific measures time and time again: (1) giving more autonomy to frontline workers, (2) clearly explaining to staff members the significance and value (the “why”) of everyday work, and (3) providing better recognition and rewards for employee contributions.

These are, of course, widely appreciated management methods for raising performance. But they’re rarely put into practice. Perhaps it’s because they feel counterintuitive to many managers. Even the leaders who use them, and whose enterprises benefit from the results, don’t know why they work. So the value of these powerful practices is often overlooked.

That’s where neuroscience comes in. Breakthroughs in human brain research (using conventional experimental psychology research in addition to relatively new technologies like CT scans and magnetic resonance imaging) are revealing new insights about cognitive processes. With a little knowledge of how these three underused practices affect the brain, you can use them to generate a more energizing culture.

Autonomy at the Front Line

At the pharmacy chain, the pride builders were employees with a knack for exceptional service. When asked how to spread that knack to others, they suggested giving clerks more leeway to do things on their own. For instance, the clerks could resolve customer complaints by issuing refunds on the spot, and they could try out their own product promotion ideas. In the past, store managers had been quick to step in and correct mistakes in an abrupt and sharp-tongued manner. Now they would be more positive, collaborative, and interactive with customers and colleagues.

The company set up a pilot program to train some store managers and track results. Almost immediately, there were encouraging comments from the front line: “[My store manager is] now open to suggestions, big or small. I know that my opinion counts with her.” Customer ratings and the amount spent per visit also rose, perhaps because giving employees the freedom to stretch and to shape their work directly improved the customer experience.

Why did autonomy make such a difference? Because micromanagement, the opposite of autonomy and the default behavior for many managers, puts people in a threatened state. The resulting feelings of fear and anxiety, even when people consciously choose to disregard them, interfere with performance. Specifically, a reduction in autonomy is experienced by the brain in much the same way as a physical attack. This “fight-or-flight” reaction, triggered when a perceived threat activates a brain region called the amygdala, includes muscle contractions, the release of hormones, and other autonomic activity that makes people reactive: They are now attuned to threat and assault, and primed to respond quickly and emotionally. An ever-growing body of research, summarized by neuroscientist Christine Cox of New York University, has found that when this fight-or-flight reaction kicks in, even if there is no visible response, productivity falls and the quality of decisions is diminished. Neuroscientists such as Matthew Lieberman of the University of California at Los Angeles have also shown that when the neural circuits for being reactive drive behavior, some other neural circuits become less active—those associated with executive thinking, that is, controlling oneself, paying attention, innovating, planning, and problem solving.

 
 
 
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