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How To Inspire Workplace Behaviors To Get Better Results

You have finally become the boss, and you have valid reasons to feel good about your team.

In the first few months of your new position, you have built a team of really good people.

You have strong players in every position.

You have clearly defined procedures for every part of the business.

You have incentive, safety recognition, and bonus programs.

And still, something is not quite right.

Somehow, there seems to be a sense of unease. You can’t put your finger on it exactly, but you know it’s there. It’s what you wake up at 2 a.m. worrying about.

What symptoms are you seeing? What, exactly, is your concern?

Sadly, it’s not precise, neatly defined situation. It’s the little things. Like having to spend too much time monitoring your workers – checking time sheets, correcting behavior problems, and dealing with attitude problems. Many people seem to be “doing their own thing” instead of being a part of a team.

Does any of this sound familiar?

If you are like many business leaders, you can relate to this situaiton because getting optimal team performance is a common problem for business owners. It’s a problem for the largest corporation and the mom and pop business. Putting strong players on the team supplies the foundation for good performance, but that is only part of the process. As the manager, you need to encourage behaviors that create positive business results.

A powerful tool for encouraging these behaviors is the use of targeted positive reinforcement within a well defined performance management system. Many people have written many articles, reports, and books about the use of positive reinforcement. Still, many managers and business owners wrestle with how to apply the concepts appropriately. One reason many people do not get the results they hope for is a misunderstanding of how reinforcement strategies really work.

Positive reinforcement strategies are far more than “pats on the back”, “atta-boys”, and “warm fuzzies.”  The effective use of positive reinforcement strategies in a structured performance management system relies on knowledge of your business systems, understanding the effect of specific employee behaviors on business results, and precisely targeted behavioral reinforcements.

Creating the performance management system that applies the principles effectively starts with understanding why people do what they do.

One model of explaining human behavior says that an individual’s behavior results from the consistent pairing of situations or events just prior to our behaviors and the consequences (experiences, situations or events) created by our behaviors. I will probably write more about this specific issue later. For now, let’s look at an example to quickly and simply illustrate the point.

We enter a dark room and flip the light switch to “On”. We do this because we expect light to be the result. Darkness is the antecedent. Light is the consequence. If we enter a room and consistently get no light by flipping the switch, we resort to some other behavior (light a candle, carry a flashlight, etc).

This concept can sound simple enough in the example. In practice, it is often more difficult to practically apply it in the workplace.

The key to making the principle work to inspire high-level behaviors is to clearly identify the workplace behaviors that produce the desired business results, and then to create consequences for employees that will reinforce those behaviors. Any consequence that encourages a behavior to repeat is a positive reinforcement.

But there is a subtlety in application that is very important to understand. We can encourage behaviors. We cannot enforce them. Many companies try to enforce appropriate behaviors rather than working to encourage them.

(Sidebar note: I do recognize the importance of holding people accountable for their poor choices, and I would sat that accountability is a separate issue from enforcement. More on that in a later article.)

The effort to enforce behaviors requires a high degree of supervisory input and nets only minimal standard performance from employees. Finding ways to encourage high-level behaviors requires minimal supervisory input once the system is in place, and it usually results in superior performance.

One way to achieve a consistent pairing of results (consequences) and behaviors is accomplished through a targeted improvement process much like the processes advocated by ISO, QS, and TQM management systems. The steps in this process are:

  1. Identify the behaviors that create the desired results.
  2. Measure the results of the behaviors.
  3. Provide feedback to employees.
  4. Positively reinforce the effective behaviors.
  5. Evaluate the choice of behaviors and measurements.
  6. Iterate to improve selection and definition of desired behaviors and paired consequences.

As business people, we all know that human behavior drives business results. Our daily behaviors create the results that either help or hurt our businesses. Learning to encourage behaviors that grow the business can make the difference between success and failure.

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