While I was the head of human resources at Covington & Burling LLP, the management committee hosted a dinner for the administrative leadership team. Many of my global colleagues had never met these senior leaders, and you could feel their anxiety.
I sat next to the chairman and managing partner, who stood up to remove his jacket. When he sat down, he leaned over to me and said, "As the host of the dinner, I took off my jacket so everyone would feel more comfortable." That is thoughtful leadership that, over time, inspires people to commit to and engage in an organization.
Why can't organizations consistently develop leaders and managers like this who motivate, engage and develop their employees? Why do so many evaluations and performance management programs—which drive manager behavior—fail to produce results?
I think it's because something is missing in these programs, which I call People Science.
While working on my master's in clinical psychology, I had an epiphany about human resources. People bring their problems to work—anxiety, depression, ADHD, explosive anger and more than a few personality disorders. How can organizations meet employees where they are—their whole selves—and help them engage, change and grow?
Every organization has a unique vision and culture, as well as a culture they aspire to. Why not pull the best from traditional business and HR practices and strengthen them with behavioral psychology to develop a targeted way to drive positive behaviors and engagement?
How do I know this works? Because I've been working on this program for my organization. I have many years of experience working in law firms, so I know it can work for you, too. Let me take you through our journey at Hadley, which is a global nonprofit organization.
Integrating People Science
Our president laid out a clear vision for our future, and it required us to move to a customer-centric, innovative, performance-oriented organization. We also leveraged an impartial consultant to update our compensation structure, ensuring it was equitable and competitive.
Then we turned to People Science—we injected it into our employee performance management system. First, we met with our leaders to identify the top three performance categories most important to our organization: work performance, a continuous improvement in mindset and ownership. Each of these categories have well-defined behaviors that can be scored. (We quantified how employees contribute to our culture and performance.)
Recognizing that most employees and managers dread performance reviews, we supported our interactive performance scorecard with positive communication, training and guides. Most importantly, we injected positive psychology into the process.
Additionally, we developed an employee guide that detailed how we measure performance in each category. We created questions for employees to ask their managers for constructive feedback. We provided questions that the managers would ask in performance discussions to give the employees time to prepare and self-reflect. In this guide, we encouraged employees to develop an action plan with their managers based on the behavioral psychology model of explore, learn, grow, change and thrive.
We also established a longer and more detailed guide for managers to help coach and provide a safe environment for discussions and feedback. We provided techniques commonly used in the behavioral sciences to motivate employee change and engagement. We also created coaching workshops for all managers and supervisors.
The last step in this process was to build a pay-for-performance compensation program based on the transparent metrics identified by the leadership team across the entire organization. We analyzed both internal and external compensation data to determine pay ranges based on performance. Research shows that positive reinforcement tied to rewards is a very powerful development tool.
Human Behavior: Quantifiable and Predictable
The outcome of this holistic performance management program is that employees are prepared for their evaluations and appreciate the safe environment to have productive conversations about their performance. The leaders appreciate the coaching and feedback techniques in the guides and training sessions that will strengthen their leadership skills. Most importantly, we used this program to reward our top performers with salary increases, which has increased engagement and, hopefully, retention.
Change is hard, but much of human behavior is quantifiable and predictable. Psychology concepts can be applied to employee engagement, performance management and coaching to help employees thrive in both their professional and personal lives. People Science can help develop strong leaders, managers and employees. After all, it is powered by science.
Susan Thompson is the Chief Human Resources Officer for The Hadley Institute. She was also the former head of human resources for two Am Law 100 law firms.