Workplace Subjectivity: The Enemy Among Us

The cause of disagreements and the sense of not being treated fairly in the workplace come from subjective work practices, not from bad people.communication

Consider the following example:

Manager: Ryan, this a great honor to be selected to open an office for the company, especially an international office. You’re going to make a ton of money.

Ryan: That’s what I like to hear. It’s going to be pretty expensive, though. What kind of help can I expect from the company?

Manager: Well, when I opened the office in Newark, the regional manager covered my expenses for a while and the company pretty much took care of me after that. They’ll take care of you too.

Ryan: Sweet … I’m on it!

The company was expanding and opening new markets.  They found the right person to accept the challenge of opening an international office.  The manager described the financial assistance Ryan would receive based on other situations that he had observed, but not on the company’s process for opening an office and for compensating the salesman—which wasn’t clear or fully documented.

Ryan did a great job, but when he claimed his expenses, he received none of the assistance that had been described to him.  Fingers started pointing, but the money never came.

The effect was devastating for both Ryan and the company.  Not only did the company lose an outstanding salesman who was now disillusioned and broke, but since he had been so highly regarded by all the other salespeople who had witnessed and heard the whole story, the ripple effect came back to haunt the company many times over.

The catalyst was subjectivity in the work processes that left a very unstable foundation of business practices and trust.

Subjective Work Processes

Simply put, subjectivity means that it’s open to interpretation. In our example, the manager stated what he thought would happen based on past experiences and not from a fully articulated, objective work process.  The “process” was subjective—open to interpretation.

Scheduling people to work, giving work assignments, paying people, promoting people, are all examples of work processes—steps we take to get something done. Every time a work process is subjective, as in the example, it invites conflict and other unpleasant evils. W. Edwards Deming had it right when he said, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”

Think about the conflicts you observed in the workplace. It may have been a conflict over how a task was or should have been accomplished. Maybe it was how an employee’s performance was evaluated.  Or, it may have been over pay, recognition, or benefits.

Whatever the conflict, drill down to the root. Chances are high that at the root there is a work process that was left open to subjectivity. That is an invitation for conflict, either verbal or the kind that just eats away at an employee and makes him or her disengaged at work—or worse, quit all together.

What Can HR Do?

Subjectivity hides in its two favorite plain-sight places—fuzzy communication and in the steps of a work process. Your job is to make these communications clear and objectify the work processes.

“Fuzzy” communications. These are directions, expectations, or outcomes that are open to interpretation. “Be more empathic,” “be a team player,” “take some initiative,” “provide better customer service,” or as stated to Ryan, “They’ll take care of you too” are all examples of fuzzies. Most workplaces are full of them.

To clarify them, they must be translated into observable performances. In our example, the company would need a clear, observable process for compensating people that opened new offices. Then, the conversation would be more like:

Manager:  Ryan, here is the written company process for compensating people who open a new office. Please note that while you’ll be reimbursed monthly for A, B, C, and D, you’ll only get reimbursed annually for E and F and no reimbursement for G and H.  You’ll also get a 10% commission bonus for the first year.  Before you start, you should also research actual expenses.

Ryan: Is that commission bonus on my earned, or paid commission?

Manager: Back in Appendix A it explains that it’s on your earned commission.

Ryan:  Got it. I’ll do some calculations to see if I can make it work.

As illustrated, your communications should cite/refer to your work processes.

Objectify work processes. The next time you’re asked to resolve a disagreement at work, identify the work process related to the disagreement. To objectify that work process:

  • Map the work process;
  • List the steps of that process;
  • Identify the steps that are missing, contain fuzzy language or identified as subjective;
  • Determine the standards to which the job must be performed;
  • Remap (revise) the process;
  • Try out the revision in the real world;
  • Adjust as required by the tryout;
  • Repeat until no further adjustments are necessary (no subjectivity remains);
  • Get approval and implement the newly revised process.

When work processes are completely objective:

  • Accountability can be more objective, more thorough, and more efficient.
  • Everyone can be held accountable for their position’s requirements.
  • Communication regarding work processes can be unambiguous.
  • Everyone can know more specifically what is required of them.
  • Everyone can be evaluated exclusively on what is required of them.
  • There are no “surprise” performance evaluations.
  • Everyone can identify what is needed to complete all job functions.

As you start noticing all of the subjectivity in your workplace, you will also realize that you can do something about it. You will find it is simply making common sense common practice in the workplace.

Common sense bookRex Conner is the author of What if Common Sense Was Common Practice in Business? The lead partner and owner of Mager Consortium, he applies the uniquely effective processes of Dr. Robert Mager to the entire spectrum of human performance in the workplace. Conner has witnessed the common violations of common sense while working as a trusted partner inside of more than 50 companies in dozens of industries over the last three decades.

For more information, visit, and connect with Conner on LinkedIn.