22, 1998 Design News
MANAGING DESIGN Tips on guiding product development
Expect the worst?
by Ted Gautschi, Consultant
Wellesley Hills, MA
When a team member or any associate performs poorly,
the problem is assumed to be the associate's fault,
and the associate's responsibility. This is certainly
true when the associate lacks the knowledge, skill,
or even desire to perform the assigned tasks. Often,
however, the associate's poor performance can result
when others--such as team members, the team leader,
their functional boss, or a member of upper management--perceives
and treats the associate as an underperformer.
A self-fulfilling prophecy can have either a positive
or negative effect. The associate may meet the great
expectations of others in a Pygmalion syndrome or follow
the low expectations created by a set-up-to-fail syndrome.
Positive or negative, both syndromes will likely have
a spiraling, self-reinforcing effect. Whether expectations
are high or low, as they are continued they trigger
more of the same behavior from the associate.
Important cues. Most of us tend to
perceive others in terms of "good" or "bad,"
as having good or bad intentions, as responsible or
irresponsible, as honest or dishonest, or as powerful
or weak. Unfortunately, these nice packages are intangible,
so we resort to discernible symbolic representatives
of the characteristics: cues. Cues vary from individual
to individual. Together, they form a lens through which
we view or perceive others. Thus, the accuracy with
which I perceive the real you is dependent upon the
accuracy of the lens through which I view you. In other
words, how well I read you depends upon how well the
cues relate to reality and the relative weight that
I give to each cue. Some cues are so important that
they suggest an entire stereotype.
The first cues that most people notice about others
are sex, age, race and physical appearance, including
clothes. These cues are important in an interpersonal
relationship because they form the lens that helps us
determine another's goodness or badness, intentions,
and relative power characteristics.
Picture this. For example, at your
project-team's second meeting, only one person comes
in late. He is inappropriately dressed and gives no
reason for his tardiness. He has not completed his action
item, and he does not contribute to the subsequent discussions.
At this point, you assume that this associate will be
a poor performer. As such, you now expect that he will
be unmotivated and a minimal contributor. You expect
him to avoid responsibility. These assumptions could
easily develop into a self-reinforcing, set-up-to-fail
syndrome, if the other team members also (view him as)
a poor performer and treat him as such. He would be
excluded from the "in-group," receive minimal
communication, and, as time went on, he would in fact
become a poor performer. These actions would lead to
two obvious costs: first, the emotional cost to the
associate and secondly, the organizational cost associated
with the company's failure to enable his best contribution.
What if your team realized that the associate came
from a vastly different culture and made an effort to
integrate him into the team? Perhaps this member is
the one most likely to make the technical breakthrough
your project needs. Perhaps he had worked all night
to verify his solution. He really wanted to contribute
to the project but he ran out of time before proving
his solution. During the meeting, he had difficulty
focusing his thoughts on anything else.
Perhaps...! Or perhaps, he really was not up to the
Ask the Manager
Q: Why have corporate philosophy (or mission)
statements emerged as a useful management tool?
A: In the past, corporate philosophy
(or mission) statements were usually given little credence.
They were often viewed as collections of empty platitudes
because they had little or no relationship to the "real
Today, some organizations are struggling to move to
flatter, more responsive network-type organizations.
These firms find using mission statements improves organizational
performance. The statements help guide individual, team,
and corporate behavior and decisions, and they convey
the organization's culture. The key is to align behavior
policies and practices with a mission statement, since
top-down direction is no longer appropriate for this
The statement should use compelling, vivid prose. It
should be easily grasped and remembered. It must be
developed and communicated to raise everyone's awareness
of the philosophy. It cannot be imposed from above.
The firm must translate general policy statements into
specific policies. The firm's reward systems must be
compatible with (them), because over the long term,
people tend to do what they are rewarded for, and stop
doing what they are not rewarded for. Performance appraisals,
training practices, and hiring processes should also
reinforce these principles.
If a firm's philosophy is "excellence through
people," we would expect statements relating to
positive employee behavior; employee empowerment; training
and performance appraisal systems; emphasis on promotion
from within; and selection of managers based upon competence
in both people and technical skills.