Lessons From The VA And General Motors: Don’t Manage By Results

Relying too heavily on results and numbers to measure success can have big consequences.

Lessons From The VA And General Motors: Don’t Manage By Results
[Image: Flickr user Dave Dugdale]

The recent problems at the Department of Veteran Affairs and General Motors may seem worlds apart, but both are cut from the same cloth. They are indicative of what we see too often in organizations: an almost obsession with holding managers accountable for results without attention to the behaviors that produced them.


In the VA’s case, mid-level managers were squeezed so tight to keep waiting list numbers low that they did what they had to do to look good: they falsified the numbers because with a shortage of doctors and nurses the goal was virtually impossible to achieve. Meanwhile, no one overseeing the VA knew the numbers were made up until the media got wind of the story and people lost their lives.

Likewise at GM, managers were under so much pressure to keep costs low that they ignored an obvious defective part until people died and their families sued.

A dishonest report card

Results are upper management’s way of keeping track of managers’ performance. There is just one big problem with that. Results can lie.

In our work over the years with many companies large and small, including the major automobile manufacturers, we have seen firsthand that employees will do what they have to do to avoid the consequences of failing to reach key performance goals.

It’s not that people are by nature devious or malicious. It’s that they are being pressured by managers and organizational goals with the perception that their jobs are hanging in the balance.


How many of us have been told or have told others: “I don’t care how you do it, but I want to see it here in the morning.” In the U.S. Army, when we were told that, fellow officers would beg, borrow, or steal–all to satisfy the hallowed command.

A backwards view

Managing by results is like driving in a big city by looking only in the rear view mirror: It doesn’t tell you what lies ahead. Problems often show up months or years later–and by then they are extremely costly to correct, as was true in the case of both the VA and GM.

When you don’t understand the behavior behind the problems and look only at results, the one solution that comes to mind is to fire people. More often than not the wrong people are fired. I was pleased to see that GM’s CEO Mary Barra fired mostly executives. I don’t know if she fired the right ones but at least she didn’t focus on front-line supervisors who were doing what management required.

The origin of the problems in the case of both the VA and GM is ill-informed management behaviors, decisions and processes–not employee issues. The only way to fix these problems is to define the proper behaviors and use positive consequences to increase them. More paperwork and reporting or changing management will not solve these problems.

Here are five recommendations to fix the problems and prevent their reoccurrence, not only at GM and the VA, but at any organization blinded by managing by results.


1. Understand behavior change

Examine how current systems are inadvertently punishing good behavior or positively reinforcing the wrong behaviors. If you think of positive reinforcement only as an atta-boy, pat-on-the back, or a raise, you will clearly be guilty of devising systems that are intended to have a positive effect but have the opposite. At GM, for example, managers could be reinforced for good catches of defects.

2. Determine the best way to attain results

Front-line employees need to be involved in this; often, they know things management doesn’t. If they are used to design a new system, they will not try to defeat it. For a winning duo, combine management and employee knowledge.

3. Don’t compromise on matters of quality and safety

Once you have determined the result and how it should be accomplished, don’t compromise. If you do, little shortcuts will become larger ones, and minor exceptions, or variations catastrophes. Variations that save time and effort are usually positively reinforcing, and if the proper behaviors are not rewarded, employees will take the easy way out.

4. Create and maintain a positive culture

A positive culture is the outcome of people feeling that they are creating value. Ensure that every employee knows what that is for his/her job and leaves work each day knowing how he/she did. Most employees have multiple daily accomplishments that should not be taken for granted. If managers don’t care about small individual accomplishments, individuals won’t care either.

5. Build in positive consequences for doing things that add value to the corporation

The latest global surveys consistently show that only a small percentage of employees are engaged in the true mission of an organization. Give employees tangible reasons to be a part of the success of the enterprise. Give them the data and praise them for their contribution.


Let’s face it. The VA problem won’t be solved in Washington, and GM won’t untangle its problems in the front office. Executives and managers need to get out of their offices and observe behaviors that are responsible for valuable results.

Apart from that, the possibility of disastrous behavior is increased. Employees will continue to pursue their own survival at the expense of the organization. Ultimately, the organization will pay.

Aubrey C. Daniels, Ph.D., is founder of Aubrey Daniels International and the Aubrey Daniels Institute. He can be reached at He is the author of Bringing out the Best in People.