Tuesday, 6 October 2015

In defence of pointless activities

OK, try this one:
Use the camera on your mobile phone to focus on a subject on the far side of the room, and press the little button to capture a picture.
Listen carefully as the shutter release makes its customary ker-ching sound.
Or try this:
Take your place on the kerbside at the pedestrian crossing and press the button to change the lights from red to green and halt the traffic so you can cross the road. Wait for (hopefully) just a few seconds until the lights respond to your touch. Then walk safely to the other side.
Or try this:
After you’ve crossed the road, continue your journey to the railway station and fight your way to the front of the crowd as the 0756 to Euston pulls up to the station platform. And (you’ve guessed it!) press the shiny button to open the door and fight your way into the (almost undoubtedly) overcrowded carriage and avoid eye contact with your fellow passengers until the train reaches its destination.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can also press the “Open” button on the inside of the carriage to open the door to allow you to be expelled onto the platform.

Well here’s some news for you.
There is no shutter on a digital camera, so the ker-ching sound was artificial and unnecessary. An illusion that your pressing the button had a mechanical effect. It didn’t.
You might have thought that the “wait” light coming button on at the pedestrian crossing signified that your pressing the button had had some effect. Nope.
And the train door? Whether or not you had pressed the button the door would have opened at its predetermined time. Caress it, tentatively prod it, or give the button an aggressive push: the door will still open when it is meant to, regardless of the intervention of your digits.
The shutter sound on the digital camera, the button on the pedestrian crossing and the train carriage door are all what some psychologists have christened Placebo Buttons.
It’s argued that the buttons do indeed have an effect – just not on the camera, traffic lights or train carriage doors themselves. Instead the effect is in our minds.
“So what’s this got to do with HR” you all cry?
We seem to be drifting unquestionably into a world of measurement, metrics and the new fad (or is it anti-fad?) of evidence based management which tells us that as there’s no concrete evidence that annual appraisals, employee engagement initiatives, coaching (and the list goes on ….) we should consign all such practices to the dustbin of HR history.
But is that wise?
Perhaps if you’re an organisation with a well-embedded culture of formal and informal feedback to staff (daily catch-ups, weekly one to one sessions etc.) then the annual appraisal is superfluous and of limited additional value. Bringing it to a halt may not have any negative impact on staff performance. But if the annual review is the only mechanism that you have for assessing staff performance, ditch it at your peril.
Also, It may not actually be possible to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that focusing on employee engagement leads to increased dedication and productivity from staff, but is there actually any evidence that it has the reverse effect?
And similarly with coaching, where the possibility of producing incontrovertible evidence that it has no positive effect (or even – perish the thought - that it can lead to a decrease in performance) is hard to imagine, which organisation will be brave (or foolish) enough to be the first to withdraw all forms of coaching support to managers?
To return to the work of Ellen Langer (now a Professor at Harvard) who undertook some of the early research into so-called Placebo Buttons:  far from considering that (actually pointless) button pressing is an irrational delusion, the effect should be seen as a positive thing. As Langer states: “Feeling you have control over your world is a desirable state. Doing something is always better than doing nothing.”
As with buttons, so with people.
There may be no firm evidence that appraisals, staff engagement and coaching actually make a difference, but if there’s no evidence to the contrary, then keep doing them, do them well and let the results do the talking.
Oh, and if you don't believe all the stuff about Placebo Buttons, here's some more information to get you thinking:


  1. Thanks for this Graham. I see what you mean about the placebo buttons but I don’t see how a pedestrian pushing a button to cross a road is a good analogy for a HR practitioner pushing coaching or engagement practices in their organization. Sure, if none of these things really ‘work’ then indeed both the pedestrian and the HR practitioner may still have a sense of control through doing ‘something’.

    However, the analogy completely breaks down when we think about costs, benefits and ethical and professional responsibilities. Sure, the pedestrian feels like they’re doing something. There are no significant costs to providing a placebo button and indeed they may feel better by pushing a button even if it has no effect (but what is the evidence for that actually?). It doesn’t really involve any issues of ethics or responsibility except perhaps that the pedestrian is being deceived.

    Contrast this with the HR practitioner spending part of the HR budget on coaching and employee engagement. If these things don’t really ‘work’ or not work very much or not work better than doing nothing or not work better than doing something cheaper the implications are profound.
    Yes, indeed, the HR practitioner may have a greater sense of control but this would be based on a serious delusion – even professional malpractice – as they believe they are doing something that benefits people and the organization when they are not – and they may even be doing harm. This has personal costs to the HR practitioner who is not learning or developing or understanding their practice. It has financial costs to the organization throwing money down the drain. It has time costs for all the employees who get involved in these practices. And it has personal costs for employees who may sincerely believe such practices help them when they do not. Not only is the HR practitioner deluding themselves but they are also deceiving the very people they are supposed to help.

    If there is reasonably good quality evidence that a practice you’re using is ineffective then it would seem like a sensible idea to stop wasting money and people’s time and to make the effort to find something that is effective.

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