My son is eight years old. Like a lot of kids his age, he’s into baseball and plays in the kids’ Little League every spring. Watching a bunch of little kids playing baseball can be very entertaining. When someone on the other team scores a hit, most of the kids go chasing after the ball. When one of the kids finally catches up to it, they’ll usually throw it in the general direction of first base. Unfortunately, this is of limited use since the first baseman is usually part of the crowd that’s chasing the ball. That’s actually not a problem, however, since the two teams tend to pretty well matched in skills. In other words, having hit the ball, the runner might go the wrong direction, lap another runner, or forget to bear left at the base: he, and it is usually he, just keeps running in a straight line, sometimes into the game taking place on the next field over.
There are lessons to be learned from this. No, it’s not that the typical employee acts like an eight year old. Why would you think that?
What we can learn are some important lessons about workplace behavior. What we’re seeing with the kids is that they don’t really understand how baseball works. Sure, the rules were explained to them. As simple as they may seem to us today, to an eight year old, they are confusing. Perhaps more to the point, without context they are relatively meaningless. What does it mean to “round a base?” How about “steal a base and run home?” In one of my daughter’s favorite stories, Amelia Bedelia took that advice extremely literally: she gathered up each base and ran off the field and back home.
So how does this tie in to office behavior?
Structured goal setting is one of the most effective means of creating a productive work force. Despite this fact, it quite frequently fails to work. Goals are set but they are not successfully accomplished. The problem is one of context: just as the rules of baseball don’t initially make much sense to eight year olds because they lack sufficient context, so too do goals often lack context for newer employees, or on new projects, or when someone is on a new team, or when the team has a new manager. The more “new” in the mix, the greater the probability that the goals will be confusing. Moreover, most people won’t want to admit that they don’t really understand their goals. Indeed, the more the organization views asking for help as a sign of weakness, the less likely people will ask questions when their goals don’t make sense. Even when the organization doesn’t have that little problem, it can still be difficult to get people to ask questions. Therefore, as a manager, you might have to have some questions prepared so that you can prime the metaphorical pump.
Another issue is recognizing something those kids do not: baseball is about playing your position. The second baseman doesn’t go running off randomly. He stays at second and waits for the ball to come to him, rather than running after the ball and slamming into the outfielder who is also trying to catch that ball. When that happens, rather than hitting a glove, the ball hits the ground. A big part of what makes a team member dependable is that they are where they should be when they should be there. When they are not, the system breaks down. We examples of that on both sides in the World Series. The Sox won in the end in large part because they were better at being where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there.
Similarly, in an office, people need to know what they are supposed to be doing and, to a lesser extent, not doing. For example, in software development, it’s not uncommon for a problem in one part of the code to trigger an “all hands on deck” callout. Everyone is expected to help solve the problem, whether they have anything to do with that piece of the code or not. Sure, it can be tempting to call everyone out to solve the problem, but in reality the people who know that part of the system best are the ones you want to have working on it. Adding unnecessary people to the mix only risks a metaphorical collision and a dropped ball.
Unfortunately, if you reward people for chasing the ball instead of playing their position, pretty soon you’ll have an entire team that goes chasing after every ball. The net result is that no one will be in the right spot at the right time, and your team will waste a lot of time and energy. It will also generate a lot of headaches. It can be difficult to not respond to every ball that goes by, but sometimes that’s what it takes.
In the end, baseball is about learning the context in which the rules and goals make sense and playing your position. The office is really not all that different.