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Is unhealthy competition driving toxic culture at the workplace?

August 22, 2018

 

 

At first instance, you may wonder how setting up KPIs to hold staff accountable for their work might in any way be problematic. After all, isn’t that considered normal, bog standard approach?  The issue, however, is not about KPIs, per se. KPIs certainly can, if used in the context of a consultative and balanced conversation between supervisor and staff, greatly assist in identifying and planning the core “must do’s” for the foreseeable future. 

 

Where the wheels start falling off…

 

Where the wheels start falling off, however, is where the “what must be achieved” becomes the only and sole focus of such planning. Traditionally, and too often now, KPIs prioritise what must be achieved. The amount is the only focus in such cases: the method, approach taken or behaviour undertaken to get there is invisible.  Is it not surprising then, that in having purely quantitative KPIs – whether the volume of sales, number of new clients, patients are seen or another numerical standard – you are motivating your employees to focus solely on achieving this output.

 

By doing this, and therefore leaving out the “how are you going to achieve the KPI”, you are sending an implicit (or even explicit) message that how you achieve your KPIs is not important. Where this becomes particularly fascinating, from the context of creating a workplace culture, is what mixed messages the employee therefore receives. It may be that on the one hand, “Organisational Values” are highly visible, from corporate induction and website exposure onwards, and displayed across lunchroom walls, corridors, notice boards, foyers, and even lanyards and coffee mugs. If those values, not controversially, include those of respect, integrity, accountability, and collegiality, then the organisation is saying to its staff that such values will be the guiding principles for how we want people to engage with the work, each other and with clients. If there is a lack of specific KPIs at a staff member level, regarding what these values translate through to as behaviours, then proclaimed values can start looking like they play second-fiddle, at best, to signed-off KPIs. If there is a trade-off needed between the two, KPIs are the more pressing imperative to meet. 

 

KPIs, and when corners are cut

 

So, in this regard, the question then becomes, when pressures can mount, what might stop an individual staff member from starting to cut corners, take health and safety risks, or whatever, in order to reach the KPI. These pressures can be from a range of places too. A number of pressures coming together can induce significant stress for those working in that team, ranging from the individual (the personalities and key influencers of the team), cross into team dynamics overall (including, for example, team demographics and technical competencies), encompass organisational pressures overall (say, a recent merger), and also include sector-related issues (such as external stakeholder pressures). When the going gets tough in this way, and if there is no KPI guidance to signal what are individual do’s and don’ts, then the risk is that the race to achieve goals becomes a “win at all costs”, or, at the very least, “win despite the collateral damage” along the way.

 

Healthy competition, of course, can certainly be a great motivator: inspiring people to perform at their best, leading to an exciting energy or buzz, and a sense of a great overall team output.  Where competition is cooperative, then everyone is engaged and there’s a real sense of achievement.

 

In contrast, where you have unhealthy or even unethical competition in your team, then this puts employees against other employees, leading to stress, and an escalation of (deteriorating) minimum standards of behaviour: support, civility, collegiality, inclusiveness and care for each other is under threat. Not only is there “people risk”, there’s also dangers to the culture around the ethical and/or compliance risks that staff may take to achieve KPIs.

 

Why must KPIs include behavioural expectations, and did anyone mention workplace culture?

 

Given that stressors won’t and don’t stop happening, and so will continue to affect how people behave, it’s vital to make sure that your KPIs proactively include the specific behavioural expectations you place on staff. No workplace culture is perfect of course. But half the battle is actually growing a workplace culture in your team that is even aware of, comfortable to acknowledge, and then, build collective ways to constructively cope with these stressors. To help win that battle, nudge your culture in that direction by being clear about why your KPIs include the “how/values” related behaviours. Discuss this with your staff, individually, and publicly as a group. Reward your staff for living your values, regardless of that one afternoon a year when you actually may examine and discuss the yearly KPI in detail.  As the supervisor, you are in the box seat to ensure that you consciously give equal weight to the achievement of all KPIs, including the “how” ones. Otherwise, if you do not, you are undermining the organisation’s values by failing to hold your staff to account for when they don’t demonstrate those core traits in any team of respect, integrity, accountability, and collegiality. Having respectful and constructive conversations to hold people accountable? As your supervisor, that’s a key part of your role. And hopefully, you have it down as one of your own KPIs.

 

About the Author 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grevis Beard is a Director of Worklogic, and co-author of Fix Your Team (Wiley) and Workplace Investigations (Wolters Kluwer). Worklogic works with Australian employers to prevent and minimise the impact of illegal and inappropriate conduct in the workplace and to build a positive culture.  Worklogic resolves conflict, investigates complaints and fixes dysfunctional teams: www.worklogic.com.au

 

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