As anyone who has spent time in a modern workplace can attest, how individual employees prefer to do their job doesn’t always align with what their employer wants. A barista might enjoy bantering with customers, for instance, while the café management wants staff to stick to a specific script. Or a delivery driver might prefer to end her shift at 5 PM sharp, while the trucking company expects the driver to finish her route.
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And so, in response to these diverging preferences, organizations tend to adopt strategies for encouraging, cajoling, or flat out dictating how employees work. These strategies—which management scholars call “behavioral control mechanisms”—include the incentives, quotas, and detailed protocols that are so common in many workplaces.
Leaders—and the consultants they hire—go to great lengths to deploy these control mechanisms. Yet the level of energy and funds invested in these rollouts do not necessarily predict their effectiveness.
What should organizations be doing to ensure their success? New research from the Kellogg School of Management suggests that part of the answer may lie in ensuring that these aren’t top-down directives. Instead, leaders should bring employees into the process early, at the conceptualization stage.
This was the main finding in an ethnographic field study that Jillian Chown, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, conducted at a world-renowned Canadian hospital. In her 18 months of field research, Chown interviewed and shadowed workers and managers, attended trainings, and sat in on executive meetings. She primarily focused on the rollout of a new protocol called the daily prep meeting.
She was surprised to observe that when the protocol mandated by management didn’t suit a given team’s needs or help them achieve the stated goal, employees didn’t turn into box-tickers, pointlessly going through the motions required. Instead, they either tweaked and customized it, or started from scratch by returning to the goals that precipitated the new routine and brainstormed a replacement.
Overall, Chown discovered a rollout process that was more collaborative than she would have expected based on existing research into workplace dynamics. The protocol she observed wasn’t unilaterally delivered top-down by management nor rejected by employees when it didn’t work for them. Rather, it was co-created by these groups.
“I think that’s very cool, because it shows the types of innovation that are possible in the design and implementation of organizational controls,” she says.
Getting Up to Speed on the Daily Prep Meeting
Chown chose to study a hospital system in part because before earning her PhD, she worked as a management consultant specializing in healthcare organizations. She also knew that it can be particularly difficult to implement new routines in a healthcare organization, because of the high level of autonomy that doctors and nurses enjoy, as well as the fact that their managers don’t always share their expertise.
“I wanted to go in and understand how change happens in this really complicated context,” she says.
During Chown’s time embedded at the Canadian hospital, she closely tracked the introduction of a new, mandated daily prep meeting in five of the hospital’s outpatient clinics.
The goal of the hospital’s top leadership was to improve the quality of patient care. The new routine required the employees to attend a 15-minute morning meeting led by their managers, in which they would plan for the day and troubleshoot any upcoming challenges. The meetings, meant to be highly standardized, were guided by a list of questions on daily prep sheets.
As it turned out, the daily prep meeting’s structure wouldn’t remain standardized for long.
In all five of the units Chown studied, the implementation of these mandated meetings became a process of co-creation, as she terms it, between management and employees.
The co-creation she witnessed in each clinic consistently unfolded in two stages, Chown discovered. First, the clinics’ teams learned about the protocol. Next, with guidance from program managers tasked with implementing it, the teams collaboratively reflected on whether and how the new tool could suit their specific contexts—and achieve the desired outcomes within them. Chown writes that her research “highlights the incredible importance of reflection-related activities for the co-creation of organizational control mechanisms.”
Customization or Transmutation
Though all of the clinics engaged in a co-creation process among managers and employees, their outcomes differed from there. Only two clinics plus a sub-team at a third incorporated a version of the daily prep meeting for ongoing use. Chown describes these teams as following what she terms the “customization pathway,” because they made only minor changes to the protocol as it had been presented by leadership—tweaking the questions on the daily prep sheet, for example.
On the other hand, the other two clinics plus the remainder of sub-teams at the third clinic decided not to move forward with the mandated daily prep meeting. Instead, each of the teams implemented a mechanism of their own design with an eye toward achieving the underlying goal of improving patient care. For example, one clinic decided that its hectic patient schedule was the biggest barrier to improving care. A better way to address this challenge, they decided, would be by introducing other protocols: a weekly preview, a schedule review, and a clinic whiteboard. Chown labels this scrapping-the-original-and-starting-over approach the “transmutation pathway.”
“I was surprised by the existence of this transmutation pathway,” Chown says. She had expected employees would give up on the new routine when they determined it was ill-suited for their unit. “Instead, I saw this effort to step back and say, ‘Ok, what are we trying to achieve?’ They went back to the goals of the mandated control mechanism, which was to improve patient care.”
Chown emphasizes that her findings are unlikely to translate to every type of workspace. For one, she notes, though they had plenty of different ideas and preferences around implementation, the hospital-leadership team and the clinical-care teams shared the underlying goal of prioritizing patient care. In a different context, like a call center, she says, it may be less effective to ask employees to help devise their own incentive structures or quota systems, since workers and managers are less likely to share a mission-driven perspective on their work.
“The ability to implement controls that can succeed may depend more on the insights of the frontline workers than on manager or consultant brainstorming.”
— Jillian Chown
Furthermore, the expertise residing among doctors and nurses may not be shared by their managers. In healthcare and other organizations with workforces dominated by knowledge workers, like high-tech industries, this makes it all the more necessary for managers developing behavioral controls to collaborate with the employees who will carry them out.
In these contexts, “the ability to implement controls that can succeed may depend more on the insights of the frontline workers than on manager or consultant brainstorming,” Chown says.
A Process to Catalyze Future Success
Chown’s research was an ethnographic inductive study—one designed “to explore ‘how’ and ‘why’ things happen inside organizations rather than the outcomes,” she explains. So she didn’t assess the effectiveness of the different teams’ protocols. But she hopes that future work will build on her findings by taking up this question.
Still, Chown’s findings do suggest that the protocols, quotas, incentives, and other behavioral control mechanisms designed by managers are likely to be better embraced if they enlist the feedback of knowledgeable employees early in the process. She stresses that while brainstorming with employees, it’s important for managers to ensure a fidelity to the core goals driving the protocol.
“There’s necessarily going to be tension between standardization and adaptation,” Chown says, “and managers have to ensure that they’re staying true to the overall purpose of the project.”
Allowing and encouraging employees to shape or co-create behavioral controls may mean more work for managers, Chown acknowledges. But she believes the extra effort is worth it.
For one thing, employees are likely to feel empowered by having a hand in this co-creation. What’s more, she adds, this kind of collaboration might allow leaders and managers to start seeing failure as a stepping stone to even bigger successes.
“My research shows that this mandate of implementing controls can act as a catalyst,” Chown says. “It created space for team meetings and brainstorming. So even though in some cases the daily prep meeting was a ‘failure,’ the teams did implement great new protocols that they came up with themselves. And that’s a success.”
Katie Gilbert is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.
Chown, Jillian. Forthcoming. "The Unfolding of Control Mechanisms Inside Organizations: Pathways of Customization and Transmutation." Administrative Science Quarterly.
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