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Making Work Easier – The Science of Managing Behavior

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When we see children behaving badly, we almost always blame the parents first, we say that that it has to do with upbringing and the environment. However, when we see employees behaving badly in the workplace, we never think to look at the leader and we are quick to blame the employee. I agree that people at work are adults and have free will unlike children and should be responsible for their own actions. However, if a particular behavior is displayed by more than one employee or in more than one location, then it may be time to take a step back and see the bigger picture.

Fear based thinking and short-term focus have resulted in many of the problems we face today.
The common complaint about the work place is not the work itself but about the things that go on that either distract us from work or stop us from working. The sad truth about this is that most people – bosses and employees alike don’t set out to do a bad job but somewhere along the way, they lose their way and get caught in the “game” that is being played in their work environment…whether it is laying blame, justifying their actions or whining endlessly about what is not working. When a five-year-old demonstrates any of these behaviors, we blame the parents. What about at the workplace? Have leaders got anything to do with it? Many behavioral analysts say that what happens on the ground is a reflection of what is being reinforced at a leadership level.
So how do we make work easier for ourselves and everyone else around us?

Vision and Values Must Mean Something at Every Level
Having a broad vision statement and a set of values is a good starting point, however many organizations stop there. They do not go on to define what exactly these values mean, especially in terms of day-to-day behaviors. Day-to-day behaviors at each level of the organization vary even though they form part of the same mission. They also don’t spend enough time thinking about what it means to their customers. For example, a bank that decides that their sales team needs to demonstrate their value of integrity – what does that mean in terms of behaviors and does the manager running the sales team know that living this statement could mean less revenue for his team at times from certain customers because if you were demonstrating integrity in sales, you may need to tell a customer not to buy a certain product/service. Although the longer-term results may pay off, the sales manager has to be willing to stand by this vision against short-term gains. Can he do that if he is under pressure to perform? The problem in many companies is that the slogans are created by marketing, HR or someone in leadership, whilst the people on the ground live with a different reality. The effect of this type of incongruence is very damaging and makes people lose trust and respect for the company.

Set Goals that are Reachable
Stretch goals are a waste of time and actually have a reverse effect on the team. When goals become unrealistic, companies tear apart at the seams like when companies grow too fast. Companies are made of people, they are the engine of that growth and steady change sets the stage for sustainable growth. What’s the hurry anyway? Fear based thinking and short-term focus have resulted in many of the problems we face today. It is time to stop this madness and make decisions that are realistic even if it means scaling back in the shorter term for more sustainable results in the longer term. Evidence from behavioral science suggests that setting smaller reachable goals reinforces behaviors in order to build habits. If the people who work for us build a habit of reaching goals, isn’t that useful for all parties involved?

Managers Must Model Customer Service First

What does the customer want? It may be a simple thing to say, yet it is so easy to become internally focused that the things we do don’t demonstrate this priority of putting the customer first.

We place too much burden on front liners to look after our customers but how much do the leadership know about their customers in any given day or month? What kind of information is being fed back to the leaders about what the customers want?

I spoke to a client who said they wanted their service staff to go the extra mile with the customers. When I asked how the supervisors of these service teams model “going the extra mile”, they just laughed. How are we going to show the people who work for us how to look after our customers if we don’t practice customer service internally? We cannot ask for discretionary effort from employees if theircustomers in any given day or month? What kind of information is being fed back to the leaders about what the customers want?

Reinforce the Behaviors You Want By Applying Appropriate Consequences

leaders are not demonstrating that in what they do and say at work. Just because we tell someone to do something, does not mean that they will do it; and even if they do it the first time, there is no guarantee that they will continue to do so consistently. In Behavioral Science there is a model known as the ABC model that demonstrates that the likelihood of a behavior continuing is very much dependent on the kind of reinforcement one gets. Positive experiences encourage us to do more of the same behavior whilst negative experiences may discourage us from continuing a specific behavior. If you burn your hand touching a hot iron, you will most likely not do that again. Some managers over use negative consequences and threats to get their team to achieve results. Whilst performance may improve in the short term, this kind of reinforcement is not sustainable in the longer term, as it tends to put a ceiling on performance and creativity. If you have a team that is performing marginally or hovering around the minimum performance benchmark, it is likely that there is some kind of negative reinforcement at play.

To Fix Performance, Fix Managers First
If you want to fix performance issues, fix the managers first as this is where the problem stems from. Many managers are not aware of the impact of their behaviors and many are not trained on how to manage performance; often this by trial and error is a painful and tedious process. The science of Behavior gives us many clues to achieving better results at work and creating a more conducive workplace for work to really take place. Great companies not only focus on results; they also focus on how the results are achieved, as this allows them to scale and replicate performance in a consistent manner. Maybe it’s time to take the guess work out of people management and make it more tangible by applying some of this proven methodology from Behavioral Science.
Great companies do not only focus on results; they also focus on how the results are achieved, as this allows them to scale and replicate performance in a consistent manner.

Article is written by Laletha Nithiyanandan, Managing Director of Talent Design Potential and Behavioral Consulting Group. Log on to www.talentdesignpotential.com and www.behaviouralconsulting.com for more information. The article represents her personal views.