Photograph by David Paul Morris — Bloomberg via Getty Images
By Joel Brockner
November 30, 2015

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” That maxim from Grantland Rice, one of America’s most famous sportswriters, was undoubtedly trotted out at some point during your childhood to console you after the team lost a big game.

And today, many executives believe that’s exactly where it should stay. In the real world, we’re told, it is results, and only results, that really matter.

Yet, while of course we care about outcomes, our obsession with results tends to blind us to the reality that how people get to the results they seek also makes a big difference; and, that even small differences in how a process is managed can have a big impact on how well the results are perceived by others.

Twitter (TWTR) shared a memo to all employees announcing that there would be layoffs at the company, but in the note the CEO promised layoffs would be handled “with the utmost respect for each and every person,” and that those being laid off would receive “generous exit packages and assistance in finding a new job.”

While the generous exit package may have been well-intended, the message of utmost respect fell by the wayside because the approach Twitter took was a process disaster. Bart Teeuwisse was a software engineer at Twitter who discovered he had been laid off when he tried to access email on his cell phone. Twitter had blocked his e-mail account. Given Twitter’s professed intentions, it seems that they could have found a more dignified way to tell people that they were being let go. But Twitter isn’t alone in process dysfunction.

One company we’ve studied had been plagued by shoddy customer service and high levels of employee turnover, so they decided to experiment a bit to improve results. When bringing on new employees, company executives took an additional 60 minutes with one group to describe their “signature strengths” and how such assets could be used on the job.

Extroverts, with a knack for teaching, might indicate that they would welcome the opportunity to play a mentoring role. Asking new hires to pinpoint their strengths not only fostered positive self-evaluations, it also enabled employees to affirm their sense of identity. The payoff for this 60-minute exercise was huge: over the next six months, customer satisfaction and employees’ organizational commitment was significantly higher for the “signature strength” group of employees than it was for other new hires not subjected to the same exercise.

Given that seemingly small differences in how managers handle processes can have such big impact, it is important to ask why the process isn’t executed well more often. It may come down to a lack of knowledge; sometimes, it just isn’t obvious how a small shift in process can matter so much. Frequently, however, what I hear from executives is that they don’t have time to handle decisions in ways that would allow employees to experience a sense of control, positive self-esteem, and a reinforcing sense of identity.

But, here’s something executives need to consider: if you don’t invest the time needed to consider the how of your decisions, you’re likely to create an even bigger mess for yourself and your organization down the road—and that means more of a mess to clean up. Put differently, pay now or pay (a lot more) later.

Look at the outrage expressed on Bart Teeuwisse’s Twitter feed on the disconnect between how he found out he was being laid off, and the CEO’s words about treating people with respect. The lesson is clear: It’s not only whether you win or lose, but also how you play the game.

Joel Brockner is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School. He is the author of the book, The Process Matters, which published this month.

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