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.
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.
- 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.
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.