Oddly, Good Isn’t Good Enough

by davidcreelman

While we’d all like to be “excellent” being scored as “good” doesn’t feel bad at all.  Oddly, there is a range of evidence suggesting that scoring “good” isn’t good enough—not by a long shot.

The most famous measure of employee engagement is Gallup’s Q12, twelve questions they have found correlate with performance.  The strangest question of the lot is, “Do you have a best friend at work?”  Most people balk at this question. Surely, it would be more reasonable to ask “Do you have a good friend at work?”  However, Gallup stuck with “a best friend” instead of a mere “good friend” because having a best friend is predictive of performance and less zealous questions are not.  It is not enough for your employees to have good friends, they must have a best friend.

You see similar results from other studies.  In Practice What You Preach David Maister describes his study of professional service firms.  In describing what kinds of questions predict high performance Maister writes, “These are not statements about achieving competence.  Notice the language: Management gets the best work out of everybody.  We tolerate nothing less than high client service.  People do whatever it takes. There is a powerful and meaningful gap between competence and excellence.”

Rob Lebow, a consultant, researched what corporate values lead to success.  He identified values such as “Treat others with uncompromising truth” and “Lavish trust on your associates” [emphasis added].  Again it’s not enough to be “trust”, you must “lavish trust.”

When you are assessing your culture, being good is not enough.  You need to achieve the excellence implied in the extravagant statements used by Gallup, Maister and Lebow.

The same principle applies when you are surveying customers. Enterprise Rent-a-Car, which has shot ahead of entrenched rivals like Avis and Hertz, on the basis of customer and employee loyalty (see Loyalty Rules! by Fred Reichheld) asks its customers to rate service on a scale of 1-5.  Enterprise discards all lower scores and just counts the “top box”—the “completely satisfied” customers.  In other words, a “satisfied customer” doesn’t count, Enterprise feels if customers are not completely satisfied then something is wrong.

Gallup’s research has shown that some customer service representatives increase customer engagement on every call.  I had experience with this when I worked for the Hay Group in Canada.  I was repeatedly told by customers how good our receptionist was.  She generated compliments on close to 100 percent of her calls.

Are High Goals Unrealistic?

There is something unrealistic in hoping to have a workforce where employees have a best friend,  where managers get the best out of everyone, people lavish trust, customers are completely satisfied and 100 percent of callers pass on a compliment.

We’ve been trained to make trade-offs, to find “optimal” levels.  Surely, you could drive yourself to bankruptcy doing whatever it takes to ensure all your customers (and employees) were completely satisfied.

However, the impeccable logic that optimal levels of service must exist demonstrates a weakness of logical arguments, rather than a failing in the message of Gallup, Maister and Lebow nor the methods of Enterprise Rent-a-Car.  People, in a good business environment, act reasonably.  An Enterprise employee is not going to go to a client’s house and wash their windows just to ensure they tick the “top box.”   However, people also operate best when there is clear direction.  Shooting to be the best, to get compliments on 100 percent of calls, or to act with uncompromising truth gives a people powerful direction.

Dr. Gary Latham, who has done groundbreaking work on goal setting says, “Reaching for a dream inspires hope. Progress toward high goals sustains that hope and gives people a tremendous sense of energy to forge ahead vigorously.”  Setting high goals, even goals you can’t quite hit, usually motivates people more effectively than aiming at something your accounting department has determined is optimal.

Taking Action

The implications are two-fold, one in how you interpret data and one in what you aim for.  In interpreting data getting scores that are “good”, while no doubt better than poor scores, are not worth very much.  When we number a scale 1-5 we tend to assume it is what statisticians call a ratio scale—that means getting two “3’s” is equivalent to a “1” and a “5”.  However, there is no reason to assume this is the case.  The distance from “satisfied” to “completely satisfied” may be greater than we normally assume.  We shouldn’t interpret a bunch of “satisfied” scores as being an acceptable outcome.

Given that, at least in these examples, only scores on the extravagant statement are predictive of high performance then clearly aiming for “good” isn’t good enough.  It’s also worth noting that again the math of what it takes to get extremely good scores may not be simple.  Doubling the number of customer service reps probably won’t double you scores.  Spending twice as much on employees probably won’t double their engagement.  Indeed, most of Gallup studies are between comparable units investing comparable amounts in customers or employees.  Achieving high scores isn’t a matter of doing more, it’s a matter of doing things right.

Perhaps a final analogy comes from the world of manufacturing.  Historically American manufacturers aimed for an acceptable number of defects.  The Japanese showed that aiming for zero defects was not a crazy goal.  Perhaps, we will see this same kind of focus come to human capital management.  Perhaps someday, every employee will have a best friend at work.


About David Creelman

David deals with fresh issues in managing human capital.  Current areas of focus include:

* In knowledge-based firms, high potential managers often crash and burn when they hit certain levels of management. How do we ‘mind the gap’?

* Integrated reporting is having an impact; that means we need to report to human capital. Are we ready? Do we really know what we’re doing?

* Can we make better decisions in a systematic way without getting suckered by big data hype?  

Schedule a call to chat about these or related issues by emailing:  dcreelman@creelmanresearch.com