Goldilocks and the Coffee Pot

Goldilocks and the Coffee Pot
March 7, 2016 

Workplace politics can be tricky.

How many times do you have to find the coffee pot with less than half a cup of coffee in it before the passive-aggressive post-it note goes up? What do you do when you accidentally send an email complaining about the accounting staff to the whole company? Are people going to judge you if you get a slice of the vanilla and the chocolate cake at the company picnic?

But looking at it from a higher-up (and slightly more serious) perspective, managers often have to ask themselves questions about the best ways to manage their employees to keep both morale and productivity high.

Should everyone have walled-off cubes or work in an open space? Should team meetings involve food? What is the best way to treat my employees to make everyone more productive?

Where there are questions, there is usually research to help lead to an answer, and the workplace is no exception. New research from NC State University, the University of Iowa, and two universities in China is digging into that last question; specifically, how differently managers should treat their employees based on their competence and productivity.

Bradley Kirkman, a professor in the school of management at NC State and co-author of the study says there is a sweet spot when it comes to treating employees differently. Like Goldilocks tasting porridge, too much differentiation or too little will hurt the productivity of an entire team. You have to get it just right.

The differential treatment approach is based on a management theory called “Leadership-Member Exchange (LMX).” The basic idea is that team leaders will have stronger, more trusting relationships with some of their subordinates. These are called the “in-group,” while those who don’t have that same relationship fall into the “out-group.”

Employees can enter the in-group based on similarities in age, gender and personality to their boss, but they also often enter the in-group by doing their job well.

Coffee BreakBosses will treat the in-group and out-group differently, and that difference is graded on a scale called LMX-7. LMX-7 does not grade things like salary or a nice parking spot, but rather quality of conversations, respect and trust with the boss, as well as useful office resources.

The theory says that managers can increase the productivity of their teams by communicating with and getting resources to their in-group — presumably their best workers — and supporting their needs. For example, if you have a really good player on your football team, you write the game plan to get him the ball and get the rest of the team to support him.

Kirkman and his colleagues surveyed 145 teams at three Chinese companies — one pharmaceutical, one manufacturing and one telecommunications — to gauge how LMX theory bore out.

What they found was that you have to Goldilocks LMX to get the most out of it. When the in-group was treated much better than the out-group, the out-group’s production suffered because they weren’t getting the support they needed and had not developed the rapport and accountability with their manager.

According to Kirkman, in extreme cases, the out-group became so disgruntled they would actually start to actively disrupt the in-group from getting their work done.

On the other hand, treating everybody exactly the same wasn’t as productive as having some difference in treatment. To use a really simplistic example, imagine you have a team whose sole job it is to fill dump trucks with fifty-pound bags of green beans. A six-foot-four, 225-pound guy who spends all his spare time doing cross-fit is going to be significantly better at that job than a five-foot-five, 125-pound college kid trying to make some beer-money for next semester. Those dump trucks are going to get filled much faster if you trust cross-fit guy to work at his pace and to keep an eye on beer-money college kid than if every person on the team has to put the same 500 pounds and no more on each truck.

There is a Goldilocks point, where the in-group has the trust and resources they need to make the most of their talent but the out-group gets enough support to contribute in a meaningful way. That Goldilocks point, the researchers found, is not always the same.

A larger team will shift the Goldilocks point toward more differential treatment. The logic there is that larger teams require extra work to keep everyone on the same page, so having an inner in-group that a manager can trust can help keep the manager informed and help delegate tasks within the group.

Culture also influences how much differential treatment is too much. In places with a greater “power distance” — a sociological term used to describe how accepting a particular culture is of unequal distribution of power — an out-group will generally tolerate a greater difference in treatment because that system is reflected in their culture.

Kirkman offered in a press release the example of companies in India, where social hierarchies are often very well-defined, tolerating a higher degree of in and out-group differences than companies in Israel or Australia, where social differences are less starkly contrasted.

Kirkman and his colleagues published this research in the journal, Personnel Psychology, and it is a reminder that the folks in the corner offices have the unenviable task of putting all of this into practice.

It’s a lot to think about, and it’s a good thing the managers are there to think through it all for the sake of productivity. That leaves us in the salt mines to ponder the age old question of which pithy line we should post above the coffee maker: “Don’t be a sot, fill up the pot,” or “You kill the Joe, you make some mo’.”

— Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.