Managers who think they're terrific at judging results on merit alone should think again, says a recent study by Maurice Schweitzer, assistant professor at the Wharton School, and Karen R. Chinander, assistant professor of operations management at Florida Atlantic University, Jupiter. "When people are reviewing results, their perceptions of your efforts matter," Schweitzer says. "It's not enough to turn in solid work. The impression of how that work was created will matter."
Owners and managers need to be aware of this "automatic bias" with employees and their own customers. Employees who accompany finished work with stories of their efforts to produce it are playing to this bias by trying to evoke a positive evaluation of their work based as much on the effort as the end result, Schweitzer says. Hard work often delivers superior results, but it's no guarantee. "You need to judge output on its own merits," he says. "If you have questions about it, then perhaps how it came about is relevant."
Managers can turn this same dynamic to their advantage when working with clients. Introducing status reports and finished work with a tale of the heroics that produced them, says Schweitzer, will evoke the bias to view the work more favorably.
In the Clear?
Bad news for companies trying to win federal contracts: At press time, the Defense Security Service (DSS), an agency within the Department of Defense, had a pending caseload of more than 209,000 personnel security investigations for federal government contractors, as well as military and civilian personnel. Routine clearances that don't send up any red flags take an average of two and a half months, the DSS reports, while uncomplicated top-secret clearances take at least six to seven months.
One point of relief: If an initial screening of a new applicant doesn't set off any alarms, an interim clearance may be granted within several days. If a clearance application does get sticky, security officers handling the investigation will deliver their reports to the actual agency overseeing the contract, which then decides whether to grant the clearance or not.
In October 2003, the DSS handed over new requests for security investigations to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Until further notice, the process for applying remains the same: Requests should be made through the Electronic Personnel Security Questionnaire. Within the next year, the process will be switched to the OPM's e-QIP online form. The e-QIP Web gateway is www.opm.gov/e-qip.
Doing more with less wears employees out, say organizational psychologists. Key signs of burnout include physical illness, eroding productivity and fraying workplace skills from otherwise organized employees. Rampant crabbiness is a tip-off, too.
Stress can undermine the productivity and quality you need to boost revenues and profits to the level where you can afford to hire additional people and upgrade equipment. "Often, there are seasonal peaks and valleys, and people learn to stretch during the valleys. But if the stretching is going on all the time because you're not putting money into the business, tensions will arise," says Jeff Trautman, vice president of The Brighton Group, a professional services firm in Seattle, specializing in outplacement and leadership coaching.
Despite constant pressure to cut costs, employees crave reassurance that things are essentially going well with the company, and that you, as the owner, are confident that better times are emerging. In addition, taking the time to sit down with employees and sort out colliding priorities can make a huge difference, says Kenneth W. Christian, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement (HarperCollins).
"When people who are normally organized get swamped, they use a panic reaction and become far less efficient than they were. Everything looms at them, and they can't figure out what is important. They are driven to distraction," says Christian. "If you start to see these signs, help them redistribute the load."
"There is no way that a PR firm of our size-nine people, $1 million in billings-can afford to staff up for every new project that comes in," says Ann Klein, president and founder of Ann Klein & Associates Inc., a PR firm in Marlton, New Jersey.
Klein's tip-offs that her staff is stretched too thin: Over 80 percent of their hours worked are billable; they no longer have time for professional association work; they get headaches. She also uses her own time as a barometer: When her time devoted to billable hours slips over 50 percent, and she's not spending as much time on bringing in new business, she knows she's in trouble.
Realizing that staffing and workload might not match up smoothly for the foreseeable future, Klein set up a circle of "senior counselors" whom she could call at a moment's notice to step in and handle overflow work. These self-employed, seasoned experts in specialties such as crisis management and writing take the burden from the staff and help Klein outsource some of the stress.
"They let me balance out my workload and keep my staff from going totally nuts," says Klein. "If you burn out or let your staff burn out, you're no good to anybody."
Joanne Cleaver has written for a variety of publications, including the Chicago Tribune and Executive Female.