The dangers of reinforcing counterproductive norms

Reinforcing counterproductive norms

“Work eleven, charge seven”, was the mantra we used to talk about in consulting. What this means is that no matter how long you work during a given day, you charge the client a single day’s worth of hours, rather than the real amount of time that you worked.

This counterproductive norm was never stated by senior leadership at that time, but it was commonly accepted throughout the organisation.

This was a hot topic of conversation, especially since at the global level, we were encouraged to submit exactly the hours we worked, rather than just a single day’s worth.

It even got to the point where there was online training released which specifically addressed this issue from an ethical standpoint. These were complete with videos demonstrating poor leadership behaviour and instructions to call the ethics hotline.

Shortly afterwards, a confirmation box appeared every time we submitted our timesheet, stating something similar to “The numbers submitted in this timesheet is the real number of hours I have worked.” To submit the timesheet, you had to click that button. So we did.

The very real problems arising from counterproductive norms

There are a number of significant problems that arise when leadership reinforce a set of behaviours that are contrary to logical ways of working.

Counterproductive norms result in cognitive dissonance, increasing stress on individuals

During my consulting career there were a number of people who started at the organisation from various backgrounds who were completely blindsided by “work eleven, charge seven”.

I remember one example where a project had gone way over budget because somebody had logged the actual number of hours they worked, rather than seven and a half hours per day.

This was a big reality check for them and I could see their brain struggling to comprehend the logic of this behaviour. “But how can we report projects accurately if we are always lying about the hours worked?” Well…of course, you can’t.

The effect this had on people was significant because it resulted in cognitive dissonance, a mismatch between their held belief (that they should report hours accurately), and the behaviour that they were carrying out (logging inaccurate time sheets).

Counterproductive norms make people feel like they are not performing well

“Work eleven, charge seven”, was once explained to me in the following way:

“Well, in a given day when you are out at a client, even if you are working for more than 7.5 hours, you are most probably checking emails, responding to phone calls from your colleagues and managers and having breaks. So actually on average, you probably only do 7.5 hours of actual client work.”

This doesn’t sound quite right to me. What this sort of statement implies is that even if you are busting your gut working twelve plus hour days, it all equals out to be seven and a half *real* hours. In fact, this implies that really, if you were more productive, you could finish working far earlier and you wouldn’t need to be in the office for so long.

Counterproductive norms can invalidate the metrics you are collecting

Do you know how easy it is to complete a project on time and on budget, when lots of people in your project team work additional hours for free? It is *much* easier.

Of course, the obvious problem with this approach is that the metrics you record are almost worthless. I never really worked on a project that went over budget, because people simply didn’t charge all of the time they actually spent.

Now how does that make any logical sense? It doesn’t give you any feedback on your estimation process or how efficiently people are accomplishing the amount of work required. It is, in fact, preposterous for any organisation that wants to improve the way they work.

The other side of the story

Whilst there are good reasons to stamp out your counterproductive norms, it would be remiss of me not to put forward the benefits of having behavioural norms, even norms like “work eleven, charge seven”.

Norms enable an organisation to create ingrained behaviour

It’s hard not to be one of the “pack”, when you are faced with behavioural norms, even if you entirely disagree with them. In the example above, it is very difficult to go against the grain and to record more than seven and a half hours in your timesheet, because you know that everybody else doesn’t and you’ll be scrutinised for it.

What this means is that an organisation can create a set of behaviours that are culturally entrenched, that are very hard to change. In the case of consulting, if your people always work longer hours than their salaries justify, you are getting more for less. As an organisation, you can still charge premium prices but clients will receive more work for the money spent.

This allows consultancies to be perceived as premium services, even though in some cases clients are simply getting smart people working for them, that work twelve hours a day, instead of an actual expert who works a few hours and gets paid a fortune.

Counterproductive norms can bring people together

You’ll find that people in prestigious industries that work long hours often bond together over that fact. Many consultants will often talk about how they work harder than the clients that they serve.

This view has the effect of building camaraderie amongst the team, as the norms that are making them work long hours are a source of consternation, but also differentiation – where people are put on a pedestal for being such “hard workers”.

Ultimately, counterproductive norms seem to be more damaging to individuals and beneficial to organisations that need their workforce to behave a certain way. There are costs involved, as employees are likely to experience more stress as they are forced to leave their integrity at the door, which can be harmful to motivation and general wellbeing.

When you are forced to do something every day that is counterproductive or unethical, you fight an ongoing internal battle, until eventually you give in and the behaviour is normalised. Once the behaviour is accepted as normal, it is a very difficult task to reverse because it is entrenched in the culture of the organisation.

Are you reinforcing counterproductive norms at your workplace?

Do these norms have some benefits, or are they just harmful to the individuals that work there?

What would be the repercussions if you refused to engage in the behaviour that has been normalised?

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