When it comes to work, Americans aren’t happy. New numbers reveal more than half of employees want to quit their jobs by the end of the year, and most people cite their manager as the reason. But according to workplace expert Rex Conner, the true problem is neither the boss, nor the bossed. It is an unseen enemy.

“Subjectivity in the workplace is the root of all evil,” says Conner, author of What if Common Sense Was Common Practice in Business? “Any time that another person can subjectively change my working conditions, there is potential conflict. Provide less opportunity for the boss and the bossed to disagree, and the ideal workplace emerges.”

Conner recently sat down and answered some questions from EHSToday.com Content Director Sandy Smith.

EHSToday.com (EHS): Can you give us a little background on yourself?

Rex Conner (RC): I started out as an instructor pilot for the Air Force and continued a training path from there. For the last 15 years, I have been inside of more than 50 companies in dozens of industries as a consultant and trusted partner. That is where I have developed a passion for developing and retaining people and a passion to find that ever-elusive common sense in the workplace. I co-founded Mager Consortium, a consulting company that is focused on removing subjectivity from people processes, especially in training.

EHS: You contend that subjectivity is the cause of a lot of conflict in the workplace. Can you define subjectivity for my audience and offer a couple of examples of subjectivity in the workplace?

RC: The implications of this are HUGE and NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT IT!

“Subjective” just means that it is open to interpretation. So, a subjective work process means that people can interpret – and disagree – on how we get things done, what the outcome should be and how we should be evaluated. That subjectivity is just an invitation for conflict.

Our communication about performance in the workplace is a good example of this. “Fuzzy” terms or phrases like, “Be a team player” are open to broad interpretation. The list of fuzzies is endless, and includes: “Be a self-starter,” “Improve your communication skills,” “Provide world-class customer service” and “Develop your business acumen.” Those are fine for broad guidance like a company mission statement, but when used to give guidance for an individual’s performance, the results will vary wildly. Your workplace is full of these fuzzies.

Subjectivity also runs rampant in work processes. A “work process” is just the list of steps we take to produce any outcome in the workplace. For example, most jobs have a process to evaluate employees. Many of us have had the unpleasant experience of being surprised in a job performance evaluation. Why are there surprises?  If our job description, the tasks we have to perform and how those tasks are evaluated are all stated in objective language with clear, observable outcomes, there would be no surprises in our evaluations.

EHS: How/why does subjectivity impact worker engagement or leave workers feeling dissatisfied with work?

RC: The overwhelming majority of negativity at work has its roots in subjective work processes. The more negativity, the less engagement and satisfaction.

Most negativity comes from disagreements, either voiced or silent. Most disagreements are over what should be accomplished, how it should be accomplished and/or how those tasks should be evaluated and/or rewarded. The root of those disagreements is subjectivity in the work process; either steps that are missing or vague, or communication that is left open to interpretation.

EHS: How can subjectivity be reduced or eliminated to reduce potential conflict?

RC: There are two ways to immediately start reducing or eliminating subjectivity, and the accompanying conflicts, in the workplace:

  1. Translate “fuzzy” language – Fuzzy language that deals with people performing can be translated into observable performances. For example, instead of “be a team player,” the guidance could be “arrive at team meetings 5 minutes early, don’t roll your eyes at team members’ comments, volunteer for assignments on the team and etcetera.”
  2. Objectify work processes –The next time you find yourself in a disagreement at work, pause to identify the work process about which you are disagreeing. To objectify that process:
  • List the steps of that process.
  • Identify the find steps that are missing or that contain fuzzy language.
  • Make the revisions to the process.

Those two steps may not always be easy, but they are that simple. As the mixed-metaphor describes, “This is not rocket surgery!”

EHS: Training is very important and impactful for safety (many of my readers are occupational safety and health professionals who conduct a lot of training). How can training methods or systems be used to improve on-boarding and leave workers with a more-positive view of the workplace and employer?

RC: Remove subjectivity from the entire training process.

Dr. Robert Mager “wrote the book” on this subject. He brought human behavioral science to training. He is one of the pioneers in the field of performance-based training. His books have sold more than 3 million copies and have been translated into 16 languages.

The bottom-line to his methodology, called Criterion-Referenced Instruction, or CRI, is to remove the subjectivity from the entire training process. That leaves exactly what must be trained to ensure the trainee has the skills and self-efficacy to perform the trained skills on the job. His methodology is as effective today as it has been for 40 years.

EHS: How can work processes be adjusted to eliminate or reduce the possibility of subjectivity?

RC: Many HR and Quality professionals are equipped to help with this, or to do it on a large scale. You can also do it on an individual basis in the workplace.

Objectify work processes – The next time you find yourself in a disagreement at work, pause to identify the work process about which you are disagreeing. Then:

  • List the steps of that process.
  • Identify and find steps that are missing or that contain fuzzy language.
  • Make the revisions to the process.

EHS: Can you offer examples of mistakes employers and supervisors make when it comes to retaining employees?

RC: “People join companies, but then they leave their boss,” was one of the conclusions coming from Buckingham’s & Coffman’s incredible amount of research for the book, First, Break All the Rules. That doesn’t mean that employers and supervisors are the devil. It means that the work processes and communications about performance are subjective, causing conflicts that result in dissatisfaction, and, ultimately, the employees leaving. Remove the source of the conflict – retain more of your employees.

EHS: Can you provide some advice on hiring and retaining talent?

RC: Hiring – Don’t expect fish to climb trees. It’s a good investment of your time to take the extra effort to identify the observable prerequisite skills a job candidate needs to bring to the job and to conduct performance-based job interviews. You won’t be talking as much as having the candidate demonstrate those prerequisite skills. (The fish description comes from Albert Einstein’s well-loved quote, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”)

Retaining – Don’t put any boss in the position of trying to implement subjective work processes, especially the pay, recognition, evaluation and work requirement processes. Disagreement, conflict and a revolving door will cause to your talent to become your competitors’ talent.

EHS: The name of your book is What If Common Sense Was Common Practice in Business? Can you offer my readers some common sense advice?

  • Create a culture of clear communication that deals with people’s performance.
  • Squeeze subjectivity (the root of all evil) out of your work processes.
  • Establish just one seamless People Performance System so the traditional silos of recruiting, training, and developing people are aligned and talking with each other.
  • Reduce the conflict between the boss and the bossed to retain the people you want.

EHS: Where can my readers find your book?

RC: THANK YOU for asking!

It’s available on amazon.com and on our company’s website, magerconsortium.com. For more information, visit www.magerconsortium.com, and connect with Conner on LinkedIn.