We really need to understand what a ratchet is and how to make them. A ratchet is also known as a flywheel from Quint Studer’s book “Hardwiring Excellence2 and is a way to describe the self-perpetuating virtuous/vicious circle identified in system dynamicsThese phenomena govern much of what we experience in the workplace and elsewhere.  

The ratchet is something that locks its progress in whichever direction you operate it. There is no counterbalance to it, nothing that reinforces it in another direction without outside intervention or radical escape. When using an actual ratchet tool, you have to press a special button to release the locking mechanism. This locking effect can be good. It can be bad. An easy example is found with physical fitness. A lack of exercise creates a lack of energy thereby creating a greater a lack of exercise thereby creating a great lack of energy. 

The “cycle of poverty” is another great example. Research shows that there is very little chance to escape from the cycle without a massive intervention from an outside group or a painful decoupling from the environment. Within its sphere, it perpetuates itself.  It’s a problem that creates problems.

The ratchet goes the other way, too. Exercise creates energy which creates more exercise. And the age-old expression stands: “the rich get richer” thanks to compounding interest if nothing else.

Intervene in bad ratchets and cultivate good ones. That’s the idea. That’s the central thesis of Charles Duhigg’s “Power of Habit”, too.

Negative ratchets in the workplace are well-known. Lack of standards, gossip, pessimism, cheapness, detachment. These things will take a life of their own if you let them.

Positive ratchets are often misunderstood. We’ll take one easy example: the classic high performer. They are a ratchet in their own right and they occasionally work extra hours to finish something in a way that fits their higher sense of quality. The result is a work product that exceeds expectations while also exceeding the typical 40-hour workweek.

How are they rewarded? In some well-meaning workplaces, these people are gently warned with an unsolicited sermon about the pitfalls of a bad work/life balance. Because we as managers think we need to be a dampener, something systems-thinkers call “the balancing feedback loop”. We do this from a place of care and concern. “I don’t want you to work so much because I care about your broader health.”

That’s what the manager says but the high performer hears something different: “I don’t want you to work so hard because I don’t care as much about your work as you do.” The pronoun “you” and the noun “work” are synonymous to the high performer. They are their work. Diminish their work and you diminish them. Suddenly, your ratchet is unsprung. For now.

But ratchets have a natural momentum. We can’t stop that energy. Don’t try. Instead, just try to help it. In the case of the high performer, it’s easy: give them something difficult to do that you care about. The ratchet starts with hard work, which leads to great results, which leads to more hard work, then greater results, ad infinitum. Together, you create a solution that creates more solutions.

Keep good ratchets ratcheting. Guide them on an upward slope. Don’t try to manage them on a flat line.

And the bad ratchets? Something like gossip? We can never get rid of gossip. But we can put our dampeners to work there. Manage with gusto. Again, it’s a ratchet so you won’t stop it completely but you can flatten it with the feedback loop.

Call it out. Gossip is leftover fish someone nukes in the breakroom microwave. It stinks up the place. Approach that person, tell them that what they did stinks, and ask them to not do it again. Confronting such things is the intervention that releases the ratchet.

It always helps to be mindful of the ratchet, both good and bad, and when to release it or not.

Photo by Typhoon at English Wikipedia