Q: I'm a small-business owner and have heard of other business owners using job rotation as a "cure" for burnout and other employee performance problems. I've even heard of one employer who rotates programmers temporarily out of programming jobs into sales positions if they appear burned out or are presenting behavior problems. What do you think of this management strategy?
A: Job rotation is not a good practice when used as a "cure" for job burnout and employee performance issues. Although many employers talk about how successful the procedure is, I'm not sure they've calculated all the costs involved.
I can recognize the value of having programmers spend time in sales; I believe all companies could benefit from having every employee interact with customers. However, it's the conditions under which most companies practice job rotation that tend to create problems.
Understand that if employees are burned out, it's because they aren't getting enough positive reinforcement. Burnout simply means the person is engaging in more behavior than the available reinforcement will support. Repetition is not the cause of burnout-people will play the same computer game or sport for years and never complain of burnout because these activities are designed to produce high rates of positive reinforcement for the players every time they play.
Therefore, to prevent burnout, you must find ways to enhance reinforcement for the job on a daily basis. This can be done by using the computer game as a model. In these games, every player's actions are measured, and every play receives continuous feedback. When a particular action does not produce an immediate positive result, the performer can make quick adjustments. Seeing performance improvement is positively reinforcing for most people.
Here's another consideration: If performers are burned out and you put them in another job, you run the risk of "throwing Bre'r Rabbit in the briar patch." If a performer isn't getting enough reinforcement from what they're doing, almost anything else will seem more attractive. So the novelty of the job and the chance to learn new things may provide more reinforcement than the old job-until the newness wears off. While the company may benefit from training the employee in a new job, I worry about what's really getting reinforced. Look at it this way: The message being sent is, "If you want variety in your job or if you're bored, create a problem in your present job, and you'll get a chance at something better."
In summary, the practice of job rotation is a dubious one from an organizational perspective. If a performer is burned out, the better strategy is to deal with that problem by increasing positive reinforcement for day-to-day work. If it's a behavior problem, I can assure you that the person will not only exhibit the same behavior problems in other positions, but also bring those behaviors back to the old job when they return to it.
The number-one caveat for employers? Be careful that job rotation does not become an unintentional reward for poor productivity or for creating problems in the workplace. If you need employees to have multiple job skills, use job rotation as a reward for good performance, and you will have not only a more productive workplace, but a happier one as well.
Aubrey C. Daniels, Ph.D., founder and CEO of management consulting firm Aubrey Daniels & Associates (ADA), is an internationally recognized author, speaker and expert on management and human performance issues. For more about ADA's seminars and consulting services or to order Aubrey's book Bringing Out the Best in People: How To Apply The Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement, visit www.aubreydaniels.com, or contact Laura Lee Glass at (800) 223-6191 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.