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On Management, Ethics, and Performance

Posted March 29, 2012 10:07 AM by Dylan Miyake

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had a major story last Sunday on the apparent prevalence of cheating in major urban school districts across the country. This investigative article was spurned by work the AJC did in Atlanta -- under the premise if the results were too good to be true, they probably were. Unfortunately, cheating of the nature discovered in Atlanta and suspected around the country hurts those who can least afford to be hurt -- children with already marginal educational opportunities.

In hindsight, the cheating scandal in Atlanta and elsewhere should have been easy to predict. Create a culture of "no excuses" performance, layer on pay for performance, and demand major performance increases year on year, and what do you get? An environment where first, small shortcuts are taken, then, when those shortcuts are not punished, larger infractions are tried, until finally there's out and out cheating that is ignored by the administration. It has to be ignored because to address it would shake the entire foundation of the program.

It's really unfortunate -- and at the same time unsurprising -- to realize that teachers and administrators are people, too. Just like hedge fund managers, investment bankers, and politicians, given the environment and opportunity to take shortcuts, some people will do it. And if the culture shifts from one of ethical behavior to at-all-costs performance, like it did at Enron, organizational failures are not far behind.

So does this mean that the "experiment" of paying for performance is doomed in our schools, and that we have to go back to a system based solely on seniority? Of course not. What we need to implement in our schools -- and in organizations throughout the country -- is a system that both rewards performance but makes ethics a "bright line" that cannot be crossed. In the words of Ronald Reagan, "trust but verify." Make ethical violations very clear and punish them immediately. Inculcate a culture of no excuses ethics.

This difficult job -- managing performance and the very human nature to cheat -- is a critical job of management. The role of a manager in an organization is the same as the role of a coach or manager in baseball -- to get the most out of her team while playing by the rules. The rules exist to protect the integrity of the game, but also to protect the safety of the players -- something that Sean Payton forgot in his zeal to win.

So, at the end of the day, school districts, like every other organization, need to step up their management skills to appropriately encourage the best performance out of everyone on the team. Failing to do so will do a massive disservice to the kids they serve.

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