By Kurt Nelson, Ph.D.

If only employees were robots. 

If we were robots, then when we are underperforming or not working, a simple diagnostic process would show us where the issue is. We would need to determine if it was a hardware or software issue, work through the bugs, and identify the component issues. It might be hard, but it is a structured process that a sound engineer can handle. And in the end, you know when you get it right because the issue is solved.  

But we are not robots. We are human.   

Employees are not robots

We are complex, context-driven, emotional, overstressed, and irrational. We often tell people what we think they want to hear, not what we really feel. We tend to avoid conflict and repress our feelings. Hell, we don’t even understand our feelings a lot of the time.  

Some of us like spaghetti, others don’t. Some of us like coffee, others prefer tea.  Some of us like ice cream…well, actually all of us like ice cream, those that don’t aren’t really human. 

You get the point. It is not always easy to get into our heads and see what the issue is. And even when you think you have found the solution, it doesn’t always last.  Add a new person into the equation, and things can get all mixed up again.   

Diagnosing humans is not as straightforward as most leaders would like it to be, but it is possible, and it can make a world of difference in how your organization performs. Here are 3 of the most effective methods for getting to the bottom of your human issues.  

Step 1: Go beyond the survey 

Scott Jeffrey is a professor at Monmouth University, who has done a lot of work on human motivation.  One of his most poignant quotes is “choice and the decision to take action are two separate psychological processes.” What this means is that when we think about a choice, we need to make we engage one set of psychological processes in our brains. However, that is a different psychological process than the one that we use when we need to take action.   

This conundrum is called the “Say-Do Gap.” People often “say” that they are going to do something or are motivated by something – but when the actual time to “do” the action comes, they don’t.   

The “Say-do Gap”

There is a gap between what they say they will do and what they actually do. This leads us to surveys… Organizations often use surveys to both identify and solve employee performance issues. This can be problematic.   

Don’t get us wrong; surveys are valuable and have their purpose – but they are not the solution for truly diagnosing human behavioral issues. There are several reasons for this beyond the say-do gap.     

  • People often answer how they think you want them to, not how they truly feel 
  • People often don’t understand their own motivations  
  • People are tired, busy, and cognitively overloaded 

Surveys are like trying to diagnose what is wrong with your car by just listening to the engine without ever opening the hood and looking at the engine.   

To diagnose people, you need to get inside their heads.

Surveys are good for a snapshot of opinion, but they don’t get underneath the hood of what’s really driving employee behavior. For that, you need to talk to employees. You need to observe your employees in their natural settings. You need to probe and prod, keep asking employees why, why, why. Don’t settle for their first answer.  If you ask an employee how they feel about a new program or company policy, you shouldn’t just take their first response. They will likely answer with an “it’s fine.” Further probing will often reveal their real feelings about the program or policy in question.   

Remember that the first response to your question is just the surface response. It’s like listening to the engine. You need to open the hood and probe deeper to understand the root cause of the employee issue.   

So, make sure that you go beyond just using survey data to diagnose issues. Surveys can help you identify where to probe, but then you need to get out and talk to your employees. To examine how they are working.  To probe beyond the platitudes and get the real honest answers.   

Step 2: Apply a behavioral science lens 

Employees are people, and as we’ve identified above, people are not always rational. However, we are often predictable.  

Dan Ariely, professor at Duke University, wrote a fantastic book aptly named “Predictably Irrational.” In it, he says, “We are all far less rational in our decision-making than standard economic theory assumes. Our irrational behaviors are neither random nor senseless: they are systematic and predictable. We all make the same type of mistakes over and over because of the basic wiring of our brains.”  

To understand that irrationality and the systematic, predictable ways that employees operate in, we need to look at employee issues through a behavioral lens. This means we need to understand the behavioral heuristics and biases that often drive our behavior.    

These behavioral heuristics and biases are mental shortcuts or rules of thumb that we use to make decisions instead of lengthy cost/benefit examinations. We tend to use our automatic thinking system, which is a fast, gut feel, system, based on intuition versus our more deliberative thinking system, which is slower, systematic, and based on reason and calculation.  Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman calls these two systems, System 1 and System 2, respectively. Understanding how employees think can help us better diagnose their corresponding behaviors.   

While there are countless heuristics and biases that impact human behavior, a few important ones include:  

  • Loss Aversion – we tend to view losses as more painful than the pleasure we would get from a similar gain (i.e., the loss of a $100 hurts more than the joy of finding $100). 
  • Confirmation Bias – our subconscious interprets information that supports our pre-existing beliefs as being more genuine and valid than information that contradicts it – in fact, the subconscious may even influence our brain to ignore that contradictory information. 
  • Endowment Effect – we tend to value things that we own or possess more than if those same things were available, but we did not own them.  
  • Herd Mentality/Social Proof – we tend to follow the “herd,” and our behaviors and beliefs are influenced significantly by the behaviors and beliefs of others – particularly those in our reference or aspirational groups (i.e., those people whom we identify with or want to be like).   

Another aspect that is vital in this diagnostic is being able to look clearly at the context the behavioral issues occur within.   

Again, we quote Ariely, “One of the big lessons from behavioral economics is that we make decisions as a function of the environment that we’re in.” Obviously, this includes our physical environment. Here are just two of many examples of how the physical environment can have an impact: 

  • How an office is designed: does it push people together or keep them separate; does it provide a lot of natural light, or no light; does it group teams together, or dispense them across the building.   
  • How do our computers operate: Do we have multiple logins or just a single sign-on; can we interface with other systems, or is everything separate; do we continually update software, or do we maximize our investment. Some systems can overburden the user – we refer to these types of processes as friction, and environment or social barrier that causes inefficiencies.  

Our behaviors are, in part, driven by these factors.  If you want more brainstorming and collaboration, you may want to look at the type of interactions that your office space is facilitating.   

One aspect that is often overlooked is the social context that your organization fosters (i.e., social proof). This often comes down to culture. Is the culture one that encourages honest feedback, or is it one that inhibits this type of truthfulness? Do people have the ability to try things on their own, or will that initiative be frowned upon?   

There is no one culture that is correct – but culture needs to be understood when you are diagnosing employee issues.   

Social context is often tricky to identify. For instance, a company president gave a speech to the organization about the need to enroll in the 401K program. In it, he said he was disappointed that only 30% of the company was enrolled. While the speech was intended to energize people to enroll, unwittingly, the president informed the company that most employees do not – reinforcing the social proof that non-enrollment was the norm and people anchored to that norm as the behavior they should mimic.   

When diagnosing employee issues, we need to determine what the descriptive norms are (i.e., the belief that not many people are enrolled in the 401K plan) and the injunctive norms (i.e., that people should be enrolled in the 401K plan). When diagnosing employee issues, we often see a discrepancy between the two.   

There is another contextual aspect that comes into play for employees – the mental context that workers are operating in. This is a reflection of the stress that they are under, the type of work that they do, and other factors that go beyond the workplace, such as their family and social life.   

Unlike robots, employees feel the pressure to perform, get bored or tired, and have a life outside of the office, which often comes into play inside the office—any good diagnostic needs to explore this.   

You cannot expect a worker to perform at his or her best when they are dealing with issues at home, are worried about their job, or stressed because there is a worldwide pandemic that has thrown their lives into turmoil.   

Step 3: Understand the incentives 

We also need to look at the incentives that are driving our employees’ behavior. This is not just the monetary incentives that are in place (although, these are critical as well), but it also includes non-monetary aspects that relate to who they are as a person (their self-schema), sense of well-being, social connections, and pride.   

In diagnosing the incentives that employees have, it is important to look at the direct incentives that are designed to drive behavior but also the indirect incentives that are influencing employees’ actions. The direct incentives should be pretty clear to identify – these are the bonuses, the promotions, the recognition programs that are in place. It is important to analyze if these incentives are in conflict with other incentives (either direct or indirect).   

Conflicting incentives can lead to big issues.   

Indirect incentives are harder to identify. These can be the unintended consequences of the direct incentives – which drive unintended behaviors (e.g., top award programs that drive people to not share their best practices because they don’t want others to outperform them).  Or they can based on other norms and processes inside your organization. These indirect incentives relate to subtle cues people infer about social status or their sense of self.   

Self-identity is a big aspect of these indirect incentives. Who we are and what we believe are the key drivers of our thinking and behavior. As people, we strive to act in ways that are consistent with our self-identity. There is also an aspect of the endowment effect (from the biases section above) – once we own something, we put a higher value on it than others. This applies not just to physical things, but also to our thoughts and beliefs.   

Indirect incentives can either increase positive feelings of self or detract from those feelings.  Either way, the result is a change in our behavior.   

A diagnostic needs to examine how your company culture or programs are indirectly effecting employees sense of:  

  • Self-worth  
  • Pride 
  • Being right  
  • Social status 
  • Pre-held beliefs and ideas  

We not only have a self-identity; we also have a social identity. This social identity relates to the group that we feel we are a part of.    

It is important to understand both the direct and indirect incentives that are playing out in any situation. Make sure that they are aligned and driving the strategic behaviors that the organization needs. Ultimately, changing or modifying the incentives can have a huge impact on your employees’ behavior.   

Diagnosing employee issues is hard, but not impossible 

After reading this, it may feel as though there is no way to really diagnose employee issues effectively. That this is just too hard with too many variables and contexts that need to be taken into account.   

It is hard, but it is not impossible.   

If you understand that humans are irrational, you’ve achieved the first step. If you realize that you need to dig deeper than just a survey to understand your employee’s underlying psychological drives, you’ve achieved the second step. From there, it is just looking at the issue with a behavioral lens that explores the reason “why.” It is leveraging insights in human behavior to look under the hood of your people and into their underlying emotions and thoughts.