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Why do you do what you do?

April 28, 2009

Some time ago I visited a busy call center to speak to a random selection of people. My mission was to gather info so we could decide how to measure employee satisfaction. Being a somewhat of an unusual setting, we decided to divert from the usual textbook approach. We didn’t want to make any assumptions.

So we got busy trying to find out if people understood the big picture behind their work. Here’s the typical exchange:

Me: Are you familiar with process A71?

Employee: Yes.

M: How frequently do you do it?

E: Twice a day.

M: Do you know why its important?

E: No, not really.

M: Okay, do you know why you need to do it in the first place?

E: No idea. I just do it because my boss asked me to.

M: Did you ever ask your boss why you needed to do it?

E: No. Normaly they give us instructions, we just follow.

M: Did anyone explain why when they trained you?

E: No.

From the sample, a majority of the people clearly had no clue why they were doing the things they did. Out of that, close to 90% didn’t think it was necessary to know why. As far as they’re concerned, their job was to do what the boss told them to do and that’s all there is to it.

I then turned my attention to “the boss” who was really 4 team leaders and 1 call center manager.

In that team, I found that not a single leader felt he or she needed to explain anything to the staff. The reason? “They should know! How long have they worked here?”

So the managers saw no need to explain themselves. The staff saw no need to ask why. Both sides assumed the other knew why they do what they do. Everyone went about their work in blissful ignorance.

The employee satisfaction rating? Lets just say it was below 50%. On average, an employee would leave the company after serving 1.5 years. The organizational work IQ was also dismal, as is typical when the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Being a specialist support center and a large one at that, the cost of recruitment and re-training was burning a big hole in their pocket, almost enough to buy two brand new Camrys a year by my reckoning.

Now look at your workplace. If you have a responsibility to produce a month-end report which goes to your boss, have you ever asked yourself why your report is important and ultimately what decisions will be based on it?

If you don’t know, do you feel it matters to you whether you knew or not?

If you are the boss, do you expect your subordinates to put two and two together and appreciate how things work?

Or do you believe your subordinates have no business to know, and that their job is to do as they’re told, no questions asked?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 28, 2009 10:18 am

    Everyone needs a reason to do something. But most often than not, people are doing things because they are asked to do so…..without any other reason behind it. That is why most employees feel lost, or directionless. And people who are lost and directionless will normally seek out other more “meaningful” jobs unless their only meaning is $$$. I once asked my bosses, what are the goals or direction of this team? He tried his best to tell me but fact is, management didn’t care. To the big bosses, they only care numbers which are perfectly meaningless to the employees.

    So other than $$, employees don’t really have any real “reason” behind doing certain things.

    I think its safe to say that for every employee who wants to push it to the limit, there’s a vast number who would just rather do the 9-to-5. They believe the less they know the better. Strangely enough, some managers adopt the same attitude too and will only give out info on a “need to know” basis. I’ve come across department heads who won’t disclose department-level KPIs to their own subordinates believing that its none of their staff’s business to know.

  2. April 28, 2009 10:53 am

    well , i have no clue what its like in a big corporate ..

    but in a small company , i think generally , BOSSES doesn’t want the employee to know too much ..employee will simply quit the company and form their own along with your supplier and customer contacts, and he will be a tougher competitor because he knows your every move..

    Haha, it is already happening regardless. How to keep a secret when your salesman knows who your clients are and your accountant knows exactly how much your cost is.

  3. Leora Richards permalink
    April 28, 2009 11:53 am

    I have a question in response – aren’t call centers staffed with younger people? I am not sure people really understand corporate citizenship until they reach a biy more maturity in the job scene.

    Hi, I believe that depends on the kind of work culture pervailing in that particular workplace. Performance systems like the balanced scorecard method will require scorecard transparency, i.e. everyone is coached on how their key performance scores will affect the department’s score, the division’s score and ultimately the CEO’s score. Then the reasons behind why people do what they do become obvious. I’ve scorecarded call centers where everyone, regardless of their age or rank, had visibility of everyone’s KPIs. Everyone knew how a co-worker’s score will affect the team’s score and how that will eventually effect their take-home pay. Everyone then looks out for each other. Good question! 🙂

  4. LC Teh permalink
    April 28, 2009 1:09 pm

    Doing things without asking why puts you in a situation as in this monkeys and bananas story.

    Haha, absolutely! 🙂

  5. April 28, 2009 9:50 pm

    What is A71? I believe majority of the call center staffs are contractors, no citizenship to the company. This tells us a lot about why they should know the meaning of things being done.

    I do my job and I get paid. No questions asked. If the management screw up on their strategy/directions, they get fired.

    A71 is just a generic process (naming it would give away the client’s identity, hehe 🙂 ). Yup, there are a few outsourcers in town but most still run them internally. Call center work is process driven & teamwork centric. Customers suffer when the agents’ morale dips and managers have learnt they just can’t terrorize an agent into providing excellent service. We also found that the more isolated people were, the less happy they tend to be with their jobs. Cynicism sinks in, teamwork suffers, and the customers who call in gets the brunt of that dissatisfaction. When customers start saying f* you to the agents, both sides eventually walk away. The cause of the problem looks small, even insignificant but the effects can be disproportional to the business.

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