Scott Keller, of McKinsey & Co.

Scott Keller, a director at McKinsey & Company, posted an insightful blog yesterday with the Harvard Business Review blog, titled “Increase Your Team’s Motivation” Five-Fold” (link requires registration).

Keller’s point of departure is a lottery experiment.  The outcome of that experiment was that participants demanded five times as much to part with a lottery ticket in which they had chosen their own number versus tickets randomly assigned, even though choosing a number conferred no statistical advantage.  Keller draws the implication that human beings are heavily biased to favor situations where they feel they have some control.

Keller argues that

Conventional approaches to change management underestimate this impact. The rational thinker sees it as a waste of time to let others self-discover what he or she already knows–why not just tell them and be done with it?  Unfortunately this approach steals from others the energy needed to drive change that comes through a sense of ownership of  ”the answer.”

Keller gives several examples of such “empowerment” of employees:

  • Employees of IBM were invited to join a three day discussion forum (called “Values Jam”) regarding cherished values of the Company.
  • One personal financial services company issued a company-wide “change statement”; it then asked members of each department to write a story for their own department that harmonized with the company-wide statement.
  • A consumer goods company involved its top 300 employees over three months in formulating “the way forward.”

Keller says that Emerson Electric CEO David Farr is in the habit of asking employees four questions, each of which tends to align employee and company concerns:

  1. How do you make a difference?
  2. What improvement are you working on?
  3. When did you last get coaching from your boss?
  4. Who is the enemy?

There are several caveats to note here:

First, I believe that employees are sensitive to cant. If what they say makes no difference, but is just part of a ritual of pseudo-participation, they’ll sniff it out.  Second, be ready for new ideas and expressions to come out that are better than anything management had in mind. Democracy is imperfect, but it does allow new ideas to bubble out. Third, be ready to share, not just in the formulation of values, but in their articulation and implementation. If we believe in democratic participation as an energizing force, let’s give it more than lip service in the corporation.

Scott Keller published a book last year with Colin Price, under McKinsey’s own imprint, Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage (2011). As the ideas he expresses resonate with some values I’ve expressed in this blog, I will buy the book and review it in a future column.

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