Change behavior to break the Motivational Code


If you're serious about breaking the motivational bottlenecks in your organisation, it is critical to remember the fact that people have to change behavior that has often paid off for years. Here's how to do it.

Although there are minor disagreements, the organizational factors that create employee engagement are well-known and many corporations are in the process of changing their cultures to become so-called employers of choice.

Conventional wisdom and organizational performance results both point to the effectiveness of a meta-level motivational approach - the creation of an environment at work that empowers employees and encourages better performance.

Unfortunately, nothing has a more negative impact on employee effort and performance than poor management style - and all the positive organizational design in the world can't change this.

But initiatives intended to improve the way that managers and supervisors go about their tasks are often perceived to be unrealistic and without value. So they are either resisted or paid lip service until they are forgotten.

The first two articles in this series intended to describe the limited effect that these perennial cycles of "motivational programs" have on supervisory or employee performance.

Essentially, all they do is train managers to "inspire" performance rather than take a direct approach to behavior change. B.F. Skinner did us a big favor when he pointed out that if we watch what happens to people when they do something, we will begin to understand why they either continue to do it or they stop doing it.

As we discussed in Part II, our behavior is functionally related to its consequences - an observation that is consistent with casual observation and common sense (not to mention economics and practical decision making).

The fact that human behavior is predictable and lawful does not diminish the dignity and complexity of the individual. Many factors influence the ebb and flow of an employee's actions: genetics, hormones, biochemistry, natural endowment, early learning, personality, and so forth. However, supervisors and managers cannot address these issues.

In contrast, the specific employee behaviors and the performance results these behaviors collectively produce are observable and measurable, hence more accessible to influence once one understands something about behavior change technology.

The word behavior is used so varyingly that confusion erupts as soon as anyone mentions the word. It means different things to different people. Here we will use the word to describe very specific, observable actions like the following:

  • Reading over the items on a safety checklist before preparing to work
  • Rotating the microchip 180 degrees to check for process abrasions
  • Asking your supervisor about today's priorities before beginning work (verbal behavior)
  • Reviewing your numbers a second time to verify accuracy
  • Saying to a customer, "Thank you for shopping at Habersham's."
  • Asking a team member if they need any help
  • Putting on your safety glasses prior to using the grinder

As a management consultant for many years, I designed organizational environments to optimize human performance. I was held accountable for results. I had to get sustained behavior changes from the workforce and their performance improvement was tracked (pre- and post-intervention) against baseline data. The systems and solutions I recommended had to result in a ROI - or else I didn't get a paycheck.

I used a system that incorporated the fundamental principles of human behavior. Supervisors and managers were encouraged to have supportive discussions with their employees about the work process, resources, effective behaviors and results, and improvement opportunities.

Supervisors were coached to ask and listen - to use their employees' expertise and experience to initiate improvements and solve problems.

Supervisors and managers were also asked to observe employees' behavior and identify those actions that added value and those that should be discontinued. Supervisory attention was used tactically to positively reinforce value-added behavior.

Culture changes, strategy execution, performance improvement all require people to change existing behavior patterns - habits that have been supported in the past because they worked in a particular organizational environment.

But organizational change initiatives have poor success rates because they seldom take into consideration the fact that real people have to change behavior that has paid off for years.

To achieve sustained behavior change, consider some of the following recommendations:

1. Train your supervisors in behavioral principles so they can engineer the work environment to encourage value-added behaviors and discourage inappropriate behaviors. Your company and its managers must understand that employee performance is driven not only by the culture, organizational processes, and management style, but most importantly, by the consequences that follow an employee's daily work behavior.

What supervisors say and how they say it is the most significant tool available in the organization's quest to manage work behavior. Simply acknowledging specific behaviors that demonstrate extra effort, add value to the product, show creativity, or identify potential problems will encourage more of the same behavior.

2. Behavioralize performance language. Start breaking down descriptions of performance results into the key behaviors that contribute to those results. Employees must know what they need to do to be successful, not how you want them to be - like loyal, creative, committed, engaged, proactive, team-oriented, conscientious, and so forth.

So use language that tells an employee what they need to do to achieve the organizational result you want. Don't just say, "be a team player," but "these are the behaviors of a team player." What does a team player do? What work behavior is required today to support the company's strategic objectives?

3. Incorporate behavioral root-cause analysis into your formal and informal problem-solving tactics. When employees are not doing quality work, aren't working quickly enough, or not doing something you want, don't ask what is wrong with the employee. Instead, look at the context of their behavior and ask what happens for the employee when they do it right or do it more often.

For example, the consequences of an employee making extra effort might be one or any of the following.

  • Peers express disapproval about the employee raising the performance standard.
  • The supervisor shunts problem jobs to the employee.
  • The employee is forced to help poor performers who are always behind.
  • If the employee finishes early, he or she is assigned more work.

Obviously, these consequences discourage discretionary effort. So it is management's job to intervene and to change the consequences so that the best interests of the employee and the organization are served.

4. Data-base every intervention (initiative, training program, or seminar). Record pre-intervention performance data by work group, department, or individual. This is the only way you will ever be able to evaluate the real ROI for performance improvement efforts.

5. The best opportunity to increase productivity and profitability is to remove the barriers and constraints that dysfunctional systems and processes create for employees.

The average employee often has to work extremely hard to overcome the outdated policies, procedures, and processes that create bottlenecks, redundancies, parallel processes, and work delays. Even the best performers quickly grow impatient in an environment where extra effort is diluted by systems restrictions.

6. Involve your employees in systems and process improvement. Process reengineering and Six Sigma have demonstrated the sweeping performance improvements related to removing the barriers to human performance that exist within your current processes.

Your employees know better than anyone where the opportunities reside. On any given day, employees can give you a list of at least three specific behaviors that will improve quality, service, productivity, or timeliness. But they are seldom asked.

7. Vertically align your strategic objectives into the results, tasks, and most importantly—the specific behaviors required from every employee to achieve those objectives.

Scorecarding has become another ponderous bureaucracy like MBOs before they vanished. Front-line supervision must be able to have a dialogue with employees about the specific job behaviors that will support the company's strategy. For example, some strategic customer service objectives can only be achieved through changing the behavior of employees who deal with customers face to face.

And finally, remember that the unstated purpose of employee motivational programs has always been to change employee behavior—to encourage employees to perform tasks more quickly, seek more tasks, put forth additional effort, and increase value-added behavior.

When managers start changing the consequences for behavior, behavior will change; the objective of motivational efforts has always been to achieve this outcome.

These kinds of behavior changes cannot be sustained unless the work environment supports new behaviors. New behavior must have ongoing supportive consequences or else the extra effort brought about by any change initiative will be discouraged and the company can kiss the ROI goodbye.

Part I  |  Part II


About The Author

Jerry Pounds
Jerry Pounds

Jerry Pounds is a management consultant with over 30 years of experience in applying positive reinforcement, reward, and recognition strategies to business and industry. He has written and spoken on the application and problematic nature of corporate motivational and rewards programs and trained thousands of executives, managers, and supervisors in the use of praise and rewards.