Stop Lying to Your Employees–Get Rid of Placebo Buttons

 In Strategic Agility

Did you know that many “walk” buttons at intersections actually do nothing? Not because they’re broken, but because they were deliberately deactivated when computer-controlled traffic signals were put in place. Even now that I know this, I often find myself standing at an intersection with my bike, pushing “walk” repeatedly, hoping to nudge the traffic light into changing. 

Placebo buttons, those buttons designed to make you feel as though you are in control—even though you are not—are everywhere. Clickable “save” buttons in software, “close door” buttons on elevators, and office and hotel thermostats are all often just ineffectual placebos. 

What worries me more than these examples, however, is the organizational placebo buttons that I’ve observed in otherwise well-run businesses. 

What do I mean by organizational placebo buttons? Activities designed to give people the illusion of control, without actually giving them control. I’ll bet you’ve seen a few of these examples: 

  • Customer and employee feedback systems in which no one ever takes action on the feedback. 
  • Innovation sessions which generate lots of good ideas, but then the company fails to invest even a minor amount to test the ideas out. 
  • Town hall meetings in which management promises action, but even the legitimate issues that are raised seem to go into a black hole. 
  • Strategy sessions, monthly reports and market research that uncover important threats and opportunities, but no action is taken, because other short term priorities always take precedence. 
  • Value statements that say we have “integrity,” “compassion” and “courage,” when leaders’ behavior seems to demonstrate the opposite. 
  • Any process, work or communication that doesn’t have the desired effect.  

These placebo buttons are destructive. Every time that you invent such a placebo system, you are essentially lying to your employees. You are leading them to believe that participating in the activity will lead to positive change. It won’t. 

The problem, of course, is that you are training employees to view themselves as powerless and passive. Placebo buttons make people believe that things don’t work, that their actions don’t matter, and that the system is rigged. They turn good employees into dumbed-down, apathetic versions of themselves. 

When this happens, customers sense the employees’ apathy and powerlessness. Customers stop contributing product-improvement ideas, stop engaging positively with your employees, and eventually, stop buying. 

But not all employees become powerless and passive. Not the smartest, most ambitious and most action-oriented ones. They just leave the company. 

Guess who stays? The folks who don’t mind a work environment in which nothing they do matters. 


Now for a bit of good news… even if you are saying to yourself “we’ve done this…we’re guilty,” it’s not too late to turn the situation around. 

Here are five things that can help: 

  1. Never leave a meeting without an action plan: what will be accomplished by when, who’s responsible, and how you’ll follow up to assure completion. 
  2. State clearly what actions won’t be taken, and why. 
  3. Fix or eliminate any feedback system for which the information is not acted upon. If you have feedback systems that do work, speed them up, so that the information gained—and the action taken based on that information—is more timely. 
  4. Recognize employees who take initiative to fix or improve things. Point out the action the employee took, and what positive outcomes came as a result of their actions. Insist that each manager, from senior executives to the lowest level supervisors, do this regularly within their work groups. 
  5. Build confidence that every action matters, that every job matters, that every process works as it is described, and that feedback makes a difference.

What placebo buttons have you observed in organizations you work in, do business with, or buy from? What do you think the most important actions are to rid these organizations of placebo buttons? 

Amanda Setili is president of strategy consulting firm Setili & Associates. She is author of Fearless Growth: The New Rules to Stay Competitive, Foster Innovation, and Dominate Your Markets, and The Agility Advantage, How to Identify and Act On Opportunities in a Fast-Changing World. 

For more strategies, videos and free materials, please visit Or, contact Amanda to discuss how she works with companies to improve profits, performance and growth.

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