How Psychology Can Help You Be a Better Manager
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Many managers and supervisors struggle to get the best out of their
employees. Do you have difficulty understanding why your workers behave the way
they do? Sometimes this is because managers mistakenly assume that everyone is
like them: “I like a lot of detail, so everyone else must as well”. And when an
employee turns in a report that looks like an executive summary, this type of
manager stresses to find out what went “wrong” with the employee.
In other cases, the manager works on the assumption that their employees’
preferences are the opposite of their own. This type of manager, for example,
believes that employees are motivated primarily by their paycheck whilst they
themselves are motivated by a stiff challenge.
What both these types of managers share is that they are both
one-dimensional; seeking to explain all or most of their employees’ behaviors by
a single cause. People are much more complex than this. Being able to appreciate
some of this complexity will help make otherwise unintelligible behaviors
understandable. Using this knowledge to then shape employee behavior will not
only take some of the stress out of managing people, it will lead to greater
rewards as employees begin to work with you and not against you.
Without wading through a lot of theory, let me illustrate the power of
psychology with a real-life example. In one computer production facility, the
production manager wanted to lift production levels. To do this, she implemented
a new incentive scheme in which production workers would receive a 5% increase
in their take home wage if they increased the number of units produced by 30%.
This did require some effort on the part of the employees as the productivity
gains could only eventuate if each of them learned how to use the new
microprocessor-controlled cutting machine.
The production manager was absolutely bamboozled that after going to some
considerable length to explain the new compensation scheme the employees’
productivity had not budged at all. The production manager quickly put her lack
of success down to the employees being “stupid”. How could this manager have got
a better result?
Consider first other reasons for why the employees may not have worked more
productively, in spite of the new incentive scheme. Perhaps a bonus was
something that they wanted, but they thought that a 5% increase was not enough
to make a noticeable change to their living standards. So, we could say that the
proposed outcome was not of sufficient value to the employees for them to change
A second reason could be that although the workers thought the bonus to be of
enough value, they believed it unlikely that they would get the bonus even if
their productivity increased. Managers may have promised extra rewards for the
employees on previous occasions without actually fulfilling their promises. In
this case, the workers believed that there is only a very weak link between
their improved performance and the promised outcome.
There is yet a third possible reason for them not acting on the reward. The
employees may have valued the bonus and believed that they would have received
it if they worked more productively. However, they did not think that they had
the capacity to work 30% more efficiently. For example, it may be that none of
them had used computers before and they believed that the company would not
devote enough time and money to having them properly trained to use the new
equipment. In this case, the workers believed that even if they did make the
effort to attend the training sessions, they still would not have been able to
achieve the 30% increase in productivity.
What lesson can we learn from this scenario? We could say that for an
employee to change their behavior, they will need to believe that:
a) the outcome is of sufficient value, and
b) they probably would receive the outcome if they performed a certain way,
c) they probably would perform to the standard required if they expended the
interconnections between these three factors – value, performance and effort –
largely determine whether an employee will work towards achieving a particular
outcome. Psychologists have named this way of looking at human motivation
Expectancy Theory. By using this lens to look at why the workers did not
behave as expected, the production manager would have gotten a much richer
insight into why the workers did not change their behavior. This understanding
then would have allowed her to modify her incentive strategy, something that
simply labeling the workers actions as stupid could not.
So, how do you use this psychological appreciation to probe the underlying
causes of your workers’ behaviors? Expectancy Theory provides the
structure for the questions you need to ask when people are not behaving as you
expect. Starting from the left hand side of the equation and working forward,
pose yourself these questions:
Is the outcome (reward) of sufficient value to them?
Find out whether the proposed outcome is of any value to the employee, and if
so, how much. Where at all possible, try to rely on intrinsic rewards. These are
rewards that do not rely on people outside of the employee to come to fruition
and can include the satisfaction that comes from doing a good job and solving a
challenging problem. Extrinsic rewards depend on others giving them and include
bonuses, promotions, company car, certificates and praise.
Does the person expect to enjoy the outcome if they perform as required?
There are two important aspects to consider here. Firstly, evaluate the
reliability of your organization’s systems and processes in delivering outcomes.
And secondly, gauge the amount of trust between people in your organization at
all layers. Both these factors weigh heavily on an employee’s perception of the
utility of their actions.
Does the person expect to perform to the standard required if they expend
Possible impediments to performance include both personal roadblocks and
organizational roadblocks. Think about each as you enquire into employee
motivations. Personal impediments include low self-esteem, poor skill level and
low tolerance to frustration. Organizational impediments include no or
ineffective performance feedback, variable processes, poorly defined goals,
inadequate resources and lack of support from peers and managers.
How do you as a manager answer these guiding questions? The short answer is
to open the lines of genuine two-way communication with your employees. Build
bridges of trust so that employees feel comfortable about confiding in you with
their true feelings. The long answer involves using tactics such as these:
leaving your door open, walking around your workplace, conducting focus group
sessions and one-on-one interviews, running employee engagement surveys and
scheduling frequent and regular team meetings.
By using some of these tactics, the manager in our example was able to
discover that the weakness lay in the link between effort and performance. The
employees believed that their low English literacy skills would impede them from
learning what they needed to know about the new machine. With this insight,
their manager quickly organized an in-house literacy program for all and within
three months productivity had soured.
As you go about talking to employees and gathering information, be ever
mindful that what drives an employee’s behavior is not the objectively
calculated probabilities that their effort will lead to performance and that
their performance will lead to the reward, but the person’s belief about these
probabilities. Remember the old adage, “Perception is nine tenths of the law”.
Use the knowledge that you have gained to modify your management strategies
and practices for motivating your workers. Do not be fooled into thinking that
by using psychology that you are somehow manipulating your employees. Nothing
could be further from the truth. See it as a way of truly understanding your
employees to arrive at real win-win outcomes. You will reduce your frustration
and stress levels as well as enhance your team’s performance. At the same time,
your team will enjoy a much more rewarding working life, will appreciate your
efforts to understand them as people and will pay you greater respect.
Where to from here? Use this as starting point to learn more about
Expectancy Theory. This psychological theory is not the end of the story
when it comes to understanding employee motivation. Employee behavior is also
modified by how they perceive the fairness of the distributed rewards. Another
theory, named Equity Theory, gives us insights into how employees use
considerations of fairness in deciding how to behave. Use the references below
to find out more about Expectancy Theory and Equity Theory and to
become an even more effective manager.
Copyright Leslie Allan
About the Author
Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd; a
management consulting firm specializing in people and process capability. He has
been assisting organizations for over 20 years, contributing in various roles as
project manager, process consultant and trainer for organizations large and
He is also the author of five books on training and change management and
is the creator of various training tools and templates. Leslie is a member of
the Australian Institute of Management and the Quality Society of Australasia.
He is also a member of the Divisional Council of the Victorian Division of the
Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD). Leslie may be contacted
from his website at
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2009-09-24 11:26:56 in Employee Articles