On my way to Tokyo and back, I started reading a book that had a fairly boring title—Traffic. Written by Tom Vanderbilt, it proclaimed to be a study of how people dealt with, well, traffic. But I am glued to it now.
The underlying premise in the book is that driving a vehicle is not only a very complicated routine, but that it totally consumes us. Worse, it changes us into inhumane beasts who can do things to other drivers that we would never consider doing to another human being. The book is filled with fascinating data and studies on behavior behind the steering wheel.
But that is not why I’m writing this.
Rather, there is a chapter in the book that intrigued me. Tom tells us that there is a litany of research showing most people believe themselves to be “above average” drivers. This is not surprising, given how people tend to think higher of themselves than they actually are. But then he addressed the questions—why do people believe this, and what are the effects?
I teach management and am also a corporate trainer. This chapter reminds me of how people in management positions think they are a great manager and leader, even though there is little basis to conclude this.
The traffic analogy is a beautiful one. The author tells us that it is very difficult to assess oneself without objective feedback. An Olympic athlete can measure the time of his event, the height of his jump, the distance of his throw, or the goals that he scored. If he/she participated in an event that required judging, there is video-taped playback and other objective means to measure performance. A driver has a driver’s test, and then blames the world for anything that causes an accident—the other car was driving too slowly, the pedestrian never should have crossed there, the brakes on this car is too loose, this car has too many blind spots, visibility was poor. It is rarely or never his own fault. You're a good driver if you haven't run over anyone in the last twelve months.
A manager reacts similarly. Any time performance falls below par, it is the economy, the subordinates, the product, the boss, the print shop, the supplier, the overseas’ outsourced process, or the company policies that are at fault. And when all goes well, of course, the manager gets all the credit. Without an objective guideline, no wonder we feel so good about ourselves.
“Wait a minute,” you say, “Companies do have performance guidelines, and they are very objective.”
You list them out, “Sales, number of calls made, number of complaints, departmental profit, number of new customers signed up, etc.”
And then I say, “Exactly.”
None of those numbers measure anything except for, well those numbers themselves, which could have occurred for reasons totally outside of the control of the individual, and often, which measures nothing. A salesman who made more calls could simply have had luck with a predecessors target list, or could be making calls that lead to no sales. Sales figures, likewise, could have resulted from a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the performance of the individual.
In Traffic, Tom tells of an insurance investigator, H.W. Heinrich who wrote in a 1931 book Industrial Accident Prevention: A Scientific Approach, that for every 1 major injury (including fatality), there were 29 minor injuries and 300 near misses. He organized this into what he called the Heinrich triangle, showing the 1 at the top, the 29 in the middle and the 300 at the bottom. If someone wanted to reduce traffic accidents, they should waste little time studying the 1 injury, but focus not only on the 29 minor ones, but mostly the 300 near misses.
And to end the traffic story, Tom mentions that one of the best ways to get objective feedback for drivers is to place a camera in the car, which runs continuously. When a strong force (such as sudden braking or steering or impact) is registered, the camera will store the immediate 10-15 seconds prior to and after the event--like a black box of a plane. By doing this, the studies have found that accidents are often avoided through sheer luck. A driver brakes suddenly for a pedestrian, but the camera shows that he was trying to make a cell phone call right before that. A car veers off the road, narrowly avoiding a child (whom the driver did not see), because the driver’s eyes were closed for 7 seconds—he fell asleep. Those with the Drivercams installed and who claimed themselves to be above average drivers were soon reduced to admitting that there was so much that they were unaware of.
This is the best kind of objective feedback.
Coming back to our world of managers. After every major “crisis” in your organization, many which never hit the performance matrix, do you do a “look back” to see what went wrong or went right? Is there an objective eye in the organization that can provide you with unadulterated feedback? Do you and your managers all grade yourselves to be above average? When your secretary and staff complain to you, are they the drivercam that you need? When you have a screaming customer, is he giving you the best feedback?
Some food for thought for the next time that you are stuck in traffic.