Where Should Performance Improvement Come From?

Image of salt and a saltshaker on a tableI belong to a number of CEO peer groups, and I have the opportunity to learn from some brilliant small business owners, and they learn from me. Last week we had a fascinating conversation about a fairly well-known concept called The Saltshaker Theory, which apparently inspired a book called Setting the Table.

The Saltshaker Theory goes something like this: it is the role of the business founder/CEO to apply constant, gentle pressure on the organization to set the standard and vision for the company. The author illustrates this point by clearing a table, and asking his friend to put the saltshaker in the middle of the table. The author moves it slightly off-center. The friend must move it back. Again, the author moves the saltshaker, and gives this sage advice:

“Your staff and your guests are always moving your saltshaker off center. That’s their job. It is the job of life. It’s the law of entropy! Until you understand that, you’re going to get pissed off every time someone moves the saltshaker off center. It is not your job to get upset. You just need to understand: that’s what they do. Your job is just to move the shaker back each time and let them know exactly what you stand for. Let them know what excellence looks like.”

At first blush, this seems elegant and obvious. Of course the leader’s role is to define the level of excellence for the organization and continually demonstrate it by nudging the organization back toward the target.

While I concur that the leader’s role is to articulate the vision, there are two things subtly wrong about the analogy:

  1. It reinforces a cynical view of the team and treats them as children. Apparently, it is the “law of entropy” that your team will fail to live up to your expectations. “That’s what they do.” Always. Without you, as the magnificent leader, to put the saltshaker in the right place, your team will clearly perform poorly.
  2. It perpetuates a culture of reliance on the leader to define and continually reinforce the standard. Why is it that you must move the saltshaker back? Is your team apparently incapable of understanding your intent – that the saltshaker should be in the middle of the table, and move it back there, should it somehow get off center? They must rely on you to tell them it’s not right.

So, in my view, the Saltshaker Theory is an interesting concept, but ultimately it doesn’t work for a high performance, professional team.

In fact, I think it’s completely wrong.

The failure of typical American management is that the behaviors leaders are rewarded for becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. People who solve problems and make progress are promoted out of the productive “doer” ranks into “management” positions. This perpetuates the problem that the people who actually produce your products and services don’t have to solve problems on their own and the reward for solving problems is a “management” position. Neither of which is true. Neither of which is healthy.

The Saltshaker Theory winds up creating a culture where teams expect the leader to define the objective and to correct the team if they get off course. Teams are not capable or responsible enough to push for improvement on their own or to self-correct if they’re not on target, apparently. It also creates an expectation at the leadership level that, in effect, your team is incompetent without you. The constant, gentle pressure must always come from the top.

That’s a pretty lackluster way to treat the people you hired to fulfill your vision, isn’t it?

It’s also tiring for the leader of an organization to be the only one responsible for this constant, gentle pressure.

At Geonetric, we’re actively fighting this pervasive myth, by creating an incredibly trusting organization. Frankly, we are moving so quickly that we have no choice but to delegate authority downward into the organization – managers can’t and shouldn’t be moving the saltshaker back. It needs to happen organically, as part of the DNA of the business, as opposed to being forced downward through the ranks by the management team.

The people at Geonetric – all of them – are professionals. They’re adults. They’re hired to be smart, and innovative, and change agents when things need to change. They are expected to continually improve performance – and this performance improvement does not come from a manager pushing change down. Performance improvement – moving the saltshaker back to the middle of the table – should come from the team itself. The velocity we want, the quality we want, the ability to delight clients and deliver innovative products comes from the power of the doers within the company, not the strength of the managers to “manage” them. The constant, gentle pressure can, in the right culture, come from the team itself!

Now, to be clear, this isn’t to say that the leadership team at Geonetric isn’t exceptional at their jobs – in fact, they are. It’s just that the role of leadership at Geonetric is less about “managing” in the classical delegate-stuff-down-and-watch-the-master-plan-come-together sort of way and more about enabling the kinds of behaviors we want to see in a healthy culture. We want a culture in which everyone is expected to contribute to and initiate performance improvement in the company. Every day.

The leadership role at Geonetric doesn’t put the saltshaker back. Instead, it empowers the team to move it back. It expects them to move it back, should it ever move off-center.

It’s a subtle, and yet critical, difference.

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This entry was posted in Geonetric Culture, Leadership, Transparency by Eric Engelmann. Bookmark the permalink.
Eric Engelmann

About Eric Engelmann

Eric gets people excited. About healthcare. About technology. About Geonetric. It only takes a few moments of being in his presence to feel his passion and see his vision. A healthcare reform junkie, Eric can usually be found uncovering new ways to show healthcare executives how to leverage technology investments and develop patient portals that will improve care delivery. After earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Iowa, he began his career in technology, founding Geonetric and never looking back. Through his leadership, Geonetric continuously receives honors and recognitions, including being named a Best Place to Work by Modern Healthcare, Software Company of the Year by the Technology Association of Iowa, and an Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Company for five years running. When he’s not sharing his vision for the future of healthcare or accepting awards on behalf of his company, he can be found having lunch with his daughter at a local elementary school or donning lederhosen and entertaining his team at the Annual Engelmann Oktoberfest.

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