giddy up

Here’s how IBM can get employees to work faster—without paying them more

April 26, 2013
Obsession
management
April 26, 2013
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A racehorse requires loyalty and an established connection.(Getty Images/Alan Crowhurst)

Speed matters. Instantaneous tweets and social media updates, faster processing power on our smartphones and computers, cable internet connections—it’s hard to imagine waiting more than a few seconds for anything these days.

But how do leaders plant seeds of alacrity in workers’ mindsets?

That sense of urgency doesn’t just happen. Sometimes it takes a culture of appreciation, worker satisfaction and success—as well as providing some well-placed incentives—to make it happen.

Yet IBM CEO Virginia Rometty hopes to hit fast-forward on closing sales, advancing new computing models, and answering customer requests. She told workers in an internal video, according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall), that the company has become too sluggish, and workers must move faster. She also set a new rule that workers must answer any customer inquiry within 24 hours.

“If anything slows you down, call it out,” she urged. “Engage management, engage leadership, and let’s deal with it.”

IBM did not answer questions about Rometty’s call to pick up the pace. But some management consultants wonder whether her whipping will work.

“A racehorse is a racehorse no matter what its age. If its mentality is more of a plow mule, we need it too,” says Dion McInnis, an assistant vice president of advancement at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. “You can still incentivize the mule to plow more acres. That doesn’t mean it will be a racehorse.”

What executives need to do, he and others say, is create workers who are running after success because it’s their success. “Create the environment for them to succeed” and then keep clear the paths of time wasters and impediments, said McInnis, who also blogs on employee morale.

When the right people are working on projects they like, their pace quickens and their successes stack up. Yet they don’t realize they’re speeding along.

CEOs definitely face “a time clock that’s more urgent” in a business world “dominated by swiftness and severity,” says Bruce Piasecki, a management consultant and author of eight books including Doing More With Less.

Creating urgency requires that workers feel managerial loyalty and a sense that their teams are accountable, he said. “They know that working under pressure pays dividends to them” because their boss rewards them properly.

What both McInnis and Piasecki are talking about is worker engagement. Happy, thriving workers demonstrated 16% better performance, and miss less work too.

So will IBM’s new need for speed work? That depends on the rollout and how much workers feel engaged and loyal to Rometty and their company. At the very least, she might establish a new tone. Piasecki notes: “If it comes from the CEO’s office, it sends a signal of urgency.”

Follow Vickie Elmer on Twitter at @WorkingKind. We welcome your comments atideas@qz.com

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