Tell Me How You Measure Me…

by Stacey Barr

Eli Goldratt is often quoted as saying “tell me how you will measure me, and I will tell you how I will behave.” We know measurement affects behaviour, so what do we do about it?

Business woman checking watch looking worried. Credit:

Eli Goldratt is a systems thinker, and author of The Haystack Syndrome, a classic text on the Theory of Constraints and how it helps us simplify what we measure (a little over-simplified, IMHO, but a vitally important idea to build on, nonetheless). The fuller version of Eli’s quote, mentioned above, is:

Tell me how you will measure me, and then I will tell you how I will behave. If you measure me in an illogical way, don’t complain about illogical behaviour. — Eli Goldratt

This has also been said in alternate ways by other business thinkers:

Show me the incentive and I will show you the outcome. — Charlie Munger

You get what you reward for. — Charlie Munger, Investors Archive video [but I share this link despite not fully agreeing with the described incentive scheme]

When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute. — Simon Sinek

In a nutshell, these thinkers are saying that when we tell people to focus on the extrinsic reward (or punishment) they’ll get for their efforts, their behaviour will be geared toward maximising that reward (or minimising the punishment). But when they care about the outcome or the cause, they will more likely want to contribute to it and the reward will be intrinsic.

The truth is that when someone else is measuring our productivity, to make decisions about our reward or recognition, we feel threatened. When we feel threatened, we protect ourselves. And the only way we can protect ourselves is to do whatever is in our control to make those productivity measures look good.

Of course, people-performance measures can be used very formally and overtly in employee performance management systems and executive incentive
schemes. But such measures can still have the same effect without the formal system, simply based on what people believe they are being judged by.

Measurement-affecting-behaviour clichés are the reality for organisations that believe it’s okay, important, or essential to measure people’s individual performance in order to manage it. The PuMP tribe doesn’t believe this. It’s not that we don’t believe in incentives or in personal performance measures or employee performance management. Nope, it’s that we believe measures of performance should be defined by each person, and not defined for each person.

So, it’s less about trying to find the right measures to drive the right behaviours. It’s more about completely reframing who owns the measure and gets to decide what it should be and how it should be used.

It’s more useful to say:

For any performance measure to result in real performance improvement, the owner of that measure should be involved in setting the purpose for it and the design of it, and be the one who uses it to choose the best ways to improve performance.

Stop trying to find the right measures to drive the right behaviours. Instead, give people the permission and the skill to choose the right measures to help them improve the right results. [tweet this]


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