The behavior-consequence relationship

Aug 15 2006 by Jerry Pounds Print This Article

An endless number of training workshops, programs, consulting approaches and books have promised to teach managers the skills and tactics for coaxing employee behavior toward peak performance. Their seductive offerings appear too promising to ignore - but they're too good to be true.

The contrasting perspectives put forward by motivational theorists have produced a confusing mish-mash of approaches to managing human performance in the workplace. Management gurus are often entertaining and stimulating, but their recommendations vary widely and are difficult to apply systematically.

Remember The One Minute Manager? That's about how long it takes to alienate your employees with these oversimplified approaches.

Neither theories nor principles are useful without a data-based system that allows us to track the effect of change efforts and determine their value.

A more significant impact on organizational performance improvement has been obtained from initiatives like Six Sigma and TQM systematic, data-based methods for solving operational problems and enhancing performance.

Faced with a distressing number of perspectives and recommendations, managers tend to default to a style that corresponds to their own personality. They manage reactively, without the benefit of organized principles to guide them. But the upshot of this is employee dissatisfaction and disengagement.

Managers tend to default to a style that corresponds to their own personality

In the first part of this article, we saw how employees change their behavior when certain conditions exist in the work environment a new supervisor, job, employer, downsizing, or reorganization. Under these circumstances behavior change is frequently self-initiated, even though previous attempts to elicit value-added employee behaviors were often ineffective.

So what is the reason for this discrepancy? Why do employees resist when their managers encourage them to double-check their work, hand reports in early, suggest a money-saving idea, share their best practice, or return from breaks on time, but then - under other circumstances - voluntarily change their behavior?

The answer can be explained by repeating the simple principle: all behavior is governed by its consequences. And if we really want to break the Motivational Code, it is essential to understand the behavior-consequence relationship.

When people find themselves in unfamiliar situations, they are uncertain about what might happen if they do not conform to requests and requirements. The consequences for an employee who does not adapt his or her behavior to a new supervisor, new job, new employer, or new requirements might be serious

At this point, it is useful to review in more detail, the behavior-consequence relationships that influence work behavior.

1. Any behavior (or any verbal or physical behavior) that has a positive payoff (is successful, gets us what we want) is repeated.

  • I told everyone in the breakroom my new joke and they all laughed.
  • I complained about my foot and the boss got Jim to walk the report over to corporate.
  • I asked the boss for some help and he is assigning me an assistant.
  • I blasted Ann about her productivity, and now she is really turning out the work.
  • I volunteered for the new task team, and they made me the team leader.
2. Any behavior that avoids a negative experience (criticism, needless effort, appearing dumb), is repeated.
  • I check that report three or four times, because if I make a mistake, the supervisor comes over to my cubicle.
  • I volunteer a new idea every week in our team meeting; if I don't, the boss and everybody else just stares at me.
  • I do it the same way every time. If I do it differently, even if it's more efficient,the engineers raise hell.
  • I ignore her calls; she always talks my ear off.

3. Any behavior that leads directly to a negative experience (discipline, embarassment, needless effort) is not repeated.

  • I finished first, so the boss gave me another assignment.
  • I solved that problem for engineering, and now they call me four times a day with problems nobody else can solve.
  • I had an idea that saved the company some money, so the head of the department gathered everybody into the main office and gave me a plaque. I was really embarrassed.
  • I helped the boss the other day. Now my buddies call me a brown nose.

But it is also important to understand that many managers continue to behave in ways that lead to employee disengagement because these behaviors produce an outcome that has an immediate positive payoff for them.

For example, when a manager threatens employees, speaks to them menacingly, alludes to a negative outcome if they don't do this or that, the employees usually do what is asked and quickly. So the intimidating manager's behavior (though inappropriate) works for him or her and are therefore repeated, ultimately becoming habitual.

Yet this is also the way bullies are created. They are shaped by the consequences of their behavior. Indeed, the inappropriate behavior of managers is often reinforced because it represents a quick way to get others to do what the manager wants.

How many leaders and managers have built their careers on being tough, critical and intimidating in effect, bullies? Or, how about the strange ones the managers who are so quirky they make you nervous just to be around them? Employees will do everything in their power to avoid having to do face-time with these characters.

Managers often unintentionally stifle desirable employee behavior that would improve performance

What's more, managers often unintentionally stifle desirable employee behavior that would improve performance. Why should employees keep suggesting new ways to improve service and quality if all they get in return is criticism or ridicule?

But managers who do not listen to employees find that the employees stop talking to them a behavior that is important to the transference of learning from the production floor into the product or service cycle.

Conversely, employee behavior that is detrimental to the organization is often inadvertently rewarded by managers. Some employees become quite adept at manipulating managers for time off and special favors. The cynical might say that the best manipulators curry favor effectively enough to become managers themselves.

Managers may reward counterproductive employee behaviors like whining and complaining just by listening. From the employee perspective, their complaining behavior has a positive payoff they get attention. The value-added behavior of high performers is often ignored while managers spend their time and attention on disgruntled or attention-seeking individuals.

The behavioral-consequence relationship influences all our behavior all the time, whether we like it or not. Yet unfortunately, productive employee behavior is often punished and inappropriate behavior is rewarded.

So while management gurus have been clouding our heads with conflicting theories, the principles of behavior the here and now reality of organizational performance − have remained largely unaddressed.

In Part III, we will examine the means by which the three principles of behavior can be systematically applied to solve performance problems and elicit discretionary effort.

Part I|Part III

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.

Older Comments

Are we talking about motivation, as the title of Part 1 would have us believe, or behaviours? It appears that the article addresses behaviours more than motivation, and the two are very different subjects.

I mention this topic in this post in my own blog ''. Basically I believe that Maslow got it fundamentally spot on. We are not going to be motivated by any higher-level needs until our lower-level ones have been satisfied.

We can certainly influence someones behaviour, but it does not necessarily improve their motivation; it can indeed have the opposite effect. Addressing their motivation, however, can have a positive and lasting effect on their behaviours.


Quiller London


You're quite right, motivation (as a noun)describes one thing while the verb, to motivate is another. I am attempting to show that much of what has passed for 'motivating others' has been less than effective.

Management's motivational tactics (particularly at the personal level) have been patronizing and manipulative. Metalevel motivation--as in designing organizations that engage employees--are a step in the right direction, but the voodoo dolls are still being passed around the board room.

At the end of the day, managers and supervisors are trying to effect the job behavior of their subordinates. They want them to do some things more often and other things less often. Understanding the objective in this manner takes the mysticism out of the managers job and makes it more clear, IMHO.

I will tie this together in Part III. Thanks for your comments.

Jerry Pounds

It was interesting that as I read the article I began to think in NLP terms about how we receive and process our experience of the outside world for it to make sense to our own inner world. For me it seems that behaviour may be a result of our 'perceived' consequences which in turn are a product of our experiences in life generally up to that point. When these perceived consequences become reality it simply reinforces our internal model and thereby justifies our original perception of what would happen - the 'I knew that would happen' syndrome. Hardly suprising then that when one comes across a manager with one set of perceived outcomes and an employee with another set the potential for conflict within that relationship increases - both become alienated from the other - unless, of course, they share the same perceived vision!



Behavior is acquired experientially; you touch a red hot burner (the behavior), you feel instant pain (the consequence). Henceforth, the probability you will touch red substances is reduced. Operant conditioning (learning associated with musculo-skeletal activity, including verbal behavior) is subject to cognitive appraisal (I can presume that a behavior may lead to a good outcome), but the behavior will eventually come under the control of the experience. I can fantasize about being a cliff diver, but if I jump off the low board at a pool (behavior) and do a belly flop (consequence), my cognitions will be aligned with the experience.

As humans we can fantasize, speculate, perceive, imagine, and dream of many possibilities; all of these will be mediated by reality--our experiences. Thinking is a prelude to behaving which then leads to consequences that encourage the physical behavior again (and thinking about it and similar behaviors) or discourages us to behave in that way or in a similar way in the future.

Thanks for your comments,


Jerry Pounds