College and the Paradox of the Modern Workplace


Education and industry often go hand in hand.  Content is created for class curriculum that satisfies a current or emerging business need.  Education and research provides insight for companies to adapt.  But there is a glaring discord in how college does not prepare people for the workplace.  I am not talking content, I am talking structure.  I am talking about a performance management system that absolutely works in college and is totally absent in the workplace.

Babysitting Adults

Do you ever wonder why being a manager often feels like being a “babysitter”?  Or do you accept it as a part of the landscape?  The reason it feels that way is because the performance and motivation model most companies operate under is closer to kindergarten than it is to college.  If you do this right, you get to have cookies (a raise, bonus, a parking space, etc.)  If you misbehave you don’t get to play with the other kids during playtime (demoted, transferred, fired, removed from projects, etc.) or you have to go see the principal (boss, HR, etc.)

Even more ridiculous is the modern day “hall pass”.  “Oh, you need to visit the doctor? Have an appointment? Your kid needs to get picked up from school?  Well, have you asked for approval yet?  Do you have an email from your boss saying it is okay for you to go on vacation?” Or perhaps the hall pass manifests itself in very subtle ways, the casual comment of “I noticed you weren’t at your desk earlier, where were you?”  Now quick, come up with an acceptable reason.

I recently read a blog post on Salary.com that, on the outset, had good intent but I have a feeling it was either written by the Principal or her aide.  The post went on to detail what constituted good reasons to miss work, and bad reasons to miss work.  Read the article here. http://salary.com/Articles/ArticleDetail.asp?part=par2201&contactID=100278795&gwkey=RMQDKNO586

My question is, why does your boss get to dictate what is important for you?  Showing up for my kid’s little league game is every bit as important to me as taking a “mental health day.”  And also notice, this article encourages LYING to your employers!  Why can’t I tell you I am taking off to go to my son’s game?  If all my work is done, why do I need a “hall pass”?  Why encourage a behavior (like lying) that erodes trust?

True Performance Management – College Style

Here is where the college structure has far eclipsed the business model of performance management.  Rather than managing attendance as the above model does, college is truly all about performance and achieving results.  At the beginning of the semester, you are given a list of what is expected of you in usually pretty good detail, including how your performance will be evaluated.  You attend class (or don’t) and fulfill the expectations of the assignment.  If you drop short of the expectations, you are given feedback on what was lacking and hopefully have better information about how to succeed on the next assignment.  At the end of the semester, you are given a cumulative rating which typically takes into account your performance over the course of the entire semester.

So for the majority of our college career no one was really taking attendance.  Some may argue that attendance was a part of the grading structure but typically there is an expectation that you participate in discussion.  If you sit in the back of the class as part of the landscape, chances are you weren’t getting credit.   Also, no one told you when to do your homework or reading and you didn’t have to lie about where you were.  In the end, if you did a good job on a project and completed the performance expectations, that is what you were measured on.  Those students that were not able to satisfy the requirements either chose different majors, schools, or left school all-together.  Each student was able to choose how much effort they wanted to put in, and as a result, they were held immediately and directly accountable for their results.  A student who showed up to class everyday but said nothing and did not complete projects in a satisfactory manner was not given credit for simply showing up…they still had to do the work.

Work as a place?

And that brings up another distinction.  In college, “work” was what you completed, not where you went.  We went to class, or didn’t, but we still had to do the work.  When did “work” become a place?  This is where presenteeism really starts to kick in; I go to the office but do nothing.  I am simply present.  And sadly, many people are rewarded simply for being there.  “Tom” is lauded for the long nights, and early mornings, and weekends he spent at work on a project.  If I complete the same project in half the time, isn’t that better?  Then I can move on to another project, or teach “Tom” how to better manage his time and work more efficiently.  But in many cases Tom gets rewarded for his “hard work” and I get criticized for not being a “team player” or having a “poor work ethic” because I don’t stay late.

Wouldn’t it be great if the workplace was more like college?  You get rewarded and based on the results you achieve as opposed to simply filling a chair.  The people who don’t like their jobs or can’t complete the required tasks move on or move out.  This is true performance management.  Start with a clear set of expectations, give progressive feedback, rate people on what contributes towards the end goal, and manage the people who don’t cut it out of the organization.  No really, it is that simple, you just have to change how you think about the workplace.

The Alternative

A recent development in the workplace is ROWE, Results Only Work Environments.  I’ve referred to them a number of times in my other blog posts, but essentially a ROWE culture does not track employees movements, whereabouts, or how they spend their time.  A ROWE measures people’s success or failure based on what the produce, not where they are.  Let me say that again, people are judged on what they accomplish, not being present.  Presence does not imply performance.

Now I am not nearly naïve enough to say that work is as linear as college where you move from one project to the next.  Far from it, modern day work is complex, dynamic, always changing, and interrelated with multiple people and departments.  But ultimately, if we give employees a clear understanding of what they are being evaluated on, give them ongoing feedback, judge them based on their achievements, and worry less about where they are at any given time, wouldn’t that be easier?  Think about it from an employee perspective, don’t you appreciate those things?  Clear expectations, fair feedback, recognition for results, and autonomy to get your job done AND have a life?

Be a college professor

If you want to stop playing babysitter, become a college professor style manager.  Tell them what the expectations are, give them feedback, and give them control over their success or failure.  The people coasting by at your meetings will go away, engagement for the people actually doing the work will go up, and performance will improve.  Not convinced?  Here are a few companies that operate as a ROWE: Best Buy (remember their competitor Circuit City, guess who made it), Netflix (remember Blockbuster), GAP, and others.  Stop treating your employees like they are 5 years old, stop babysitting them, and measure them on what they get done, not where they are.  You’ll be happier, and they will be happier.

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2 thoughts on “College and the Paradox of the Modern Workplace

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention College and the Paradox of the Modern Workplace « Peak Alignment -- Topsy.com

  2. Pingback: Peak Alignment Blog: 2010 in review « Peak Alignment

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