Employees Are Irrational (and That's a Good Thing)

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Joyce Hostyn avatar

Employees Are Irrational
"The average man is by nature indolent -- he works as little as possible. He lacks ambition, dislikes responsibility, prefers to be led. He is inherently self-centered, indifferent to organizational needs. He is by nature resistant to change. He is gullible, not very bright, the ready dupe of the charlatan and the demagogue" -- Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of the Enterprise

These are a few of the assumptions underlying some of the management practices and theories of change we inherited from the industrial age.

While we've successfully shaken off some of these assumptions, others continue to blind us. And as long as they blind us they’ll hinder our ability to thrive in an age of rapid change and digital disruption.

One of these assumptions is that people are self-interested, rational decision makers. Our economic and change models assume that people collect data, carefully weigh their options and then make a decision based on logic. But as behavioral economics has demonstrated, we make decisions emotionally and then rationalize them after we've made our decision. But behavioral economics is demonstrating that people are actually irrational, but predictably so. If you’re new to behavioral economics, watch this excellent playlist on predictable irrationality from TED.

How do these assumptions hurt us?

Because business is ultimately about people. It’s powered by people (employees). It exists to serve people (customers). And it relies on a network of people (partners and suppliers) to deliver its products and services.

Employees are Your Most Important Touchpoint

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Source: Tom Fishburne

The most important touchpoint between an organization and its customers are its employees.Human to human connections are where relationships are forged, engagement occurs and trust is built.

And yet this is the touchpoint most organizations most neglect. And if they do turn their focus onto this touchpoint the language is far too often sprinkled with words like optimize, efficiency and process reengineering.

  • Reengineer call center operations
  • Offshore contact center to reduce costs
  • Optimize employee productivity
  • Improve efficiency

Think about this language. It’s firmly rooted in some of the assumptions I led this post with. Have you ever tried to re-engineer your relationship with a loved one in order to increase the efficiency of your interactions? How well did that go?

Instead, let’s talk experiences. Here are a few of the phrases used by organizations who take a people-first experience focus to their business.

  • Making people’s day (Amy’s Ice Creams)
  • Magical moments (Disney)
  • Delivering happiness (Zappos)
  • Warrior Spirit, a Servant’s Heart, and Fun-LUVing Attitude (Southwest Airlines)
  • Will it make my customer smile? (FAB)

Do any of these sound rational? Not on the surface. But counter to the assumptions of how to run a profitable company, the impact on the bottom line of people-first experience mindset is significant.

Why are such irrational rallying cries so impactful? Because each employee, through their behavior and attitude, sends out experience clues. Anything a customer can see, hear, taste or smell is a clue. Clues build on each other to tell the story about the service and the organization, influencing how a customer feels. They answer the question “Does the organization really care?”

Employees are in the performance business, something companies like Disney, Amy’s Ice Cream and Southwest Airlines understand well.

And once we understand that employees are in the performance business, we next need to look at how to turn employees into performance artists capable of delivering unique experiences that turn customers into advocates.

And, like theater, this isn't an engineering challenge that can be solved with processing mapping.

Process Maps are Inward Looking and Assume Rationality

The rock that reengineering has foundered on is simple: people. Reengineering treated the people inside companies as if they were just so many bits and bytes, interchangeable parts to be reengineered. But no one wants to 'be reengineered.' For technologists, the lesson from reengineering is a reminder of an old truth: information technology is only useful if it helps people do their work better and differently" -- Thomas H. Davenport, The fad that forgot people

Many organizations put a lot of effort into process mapping and process reengineering in a quest to improve customer service. While fixing inefficient processes can help an organization better serve its customers, the problem arises when an organization sees efficiency and process improvement as the primary way to improve customer experience.

Why is this a problem?

Because a process map is a description of how your organization works. It’s an inside out perspective. It assumes people are rational and that there are a logical set of steps with predictable exceptions that can be modeled. It completely neglects the soft stuff. Irrational things like emotions, feelings, perception, gossip and intuition. It assumes efficiency is the goal.

To understand why efficiency is a rabbit hole, take the time to watch this wonderfully entertaining TED talk by Rory Sutherland.

Learning Opportunities

Processes don't do work, people do. A process first approach can actually harm both employee and customer loyalty. Processes are transactional, not relational. And a process-centric mindset limits our ability to be responsive, hindering our ability to adapt and innovate along with the shifting needs of customers.

Employees are wasted if treated like pawns on a chessboard whose job it is to execute rigidly defined moves on an unchanging board. They’re more like performance artists.

For employees to deliver performances that delight, performances that enhance an organization’s ability to adapt and innovate, we need to “keep [processes] elegantly minimal -- to under prescribe formal procedures and create ‘elbow room’ for local interpretations and innovations.”

So what’s the alternative to a process-centric approach?

Journey Maps are Experiential and Help Shift Your Organizational Mindset

Unlike processes, which are inward looking, journey maps take an outside-in approach focusing on what people actually experience.

They capture what people actually do (behaviors) rather than a process map which defines what people should do in a prescribed order (processes).

And most important, journey maps visualize emotions and attitudes. And because they’re focused on people, they’re much messier.

Journey maps help shift focus from one-off transactions to experiential journeys.

Not yet familiar with journey maps? Here’s a presentation I created when I was first trying to wrap my head around how to work with journey maps.

So instead of focusing on efficiency, start asking questions at the most important touchpoints about the experience cues that you need to design in order to evoke the feelings that will make an experience memorable, deliver on your brand promise and turn customers into advocates.
  • How might we make the customer smile?
  • How might we leave a customer feeling better off at the end of a call?
  • How might we make a customer feel confident with their choice?
  • How might we make the customer feel heroic?
  • How might we make the customer feel like their information will be safe with us?
  • When we make a mistake, how might we deliver an apology that actually increases their loyalty?
  • How might we make the customer feel like time is passing quickly?

Once you understand your customer journey, shift your focus to your employee experience to ensure that employees are empowered to deliver magical experiences at each moment of truth in a way that reflects your unique brand personality.

Title image courtesy of Ioannis Pantzi (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Be sure to read the second part of this post, Irrational Employees Create the Best Customer Experiences

About the author

Joyce Hostyn

Joyce Hostyn is a passionate advocate for the customer experience. She believes that organizations — people-centric organizations — are in a unique position to effect positive change in the world.