Quality initiatives, safety initiatives, and organizational change initiatives of every description often fail. The reason – the initiatives fail to change employee behavior – the way employees do things. The underlying fallacy that prevents change is leadership's belief that developing and communicating new ways of doing things will be accepted and practiced by employees. Old ways of doing their jobs are supported by strong habits, skills, behavioral shortcuts, and behavioral efficiencies. Most "improvement" initiatives require historically effective behaviors to be cast aside and replaced by new ways of doing things that require learning, practice, mistakes, and repetitive practice.
New behavior requires new consequences – positive feedback and positive reinforcement – to ensure the behaviors become habits. The things employees do prior to a change initiative are a function of what that behavior provides for the employee. Protective safety equipment is often uncomfortable to wear and many prescribed safety behaviors are time consuming and require extra effort; so that behavior leads to some negatives for the employee. Performers often do not perform behaviors because the consequences to them are discomfort and effort. In that sense, there is a payoff for not performing the safe behaviors and doing something unsafe.
All organizational initiatives face the same problem: Existing employee behaviors are being maintained by existing consequences. To change the behavior, you have to provide positive consequences for the new behavior a performance improvement initiative requires. Positive feedback and recognition are essential elements of a Behavior Based Safety initiative. When these outcomes are provided for safe behavior, the safety culture is strengthened and injury rates decrease rapidly. However, in some organizations we find that the Behavior Based Safety initiative is not working as it should.
Leadership ultimately determines whether an initiative is successful and integrated into the organization as part of “the system.” Unfortunately senior leadership has experienced years of paying for initiatives that produce no lasting change. They are seldom held accountable or even told that they have to be visible supporters of the new system. Most often, no one helps them determine what they need to do and say to demonstrate support to all managers and employees. When senior leader do not impose accountability throughout the management team, initiatives also lose support and participation because frontline supervision does not play their role effectively.
You might say, “We understand the need for positive reinforcement, so we complimented people frequently and thanked them for good work.” Exactly; you delivered a scripted, positive comment on a schedule. You were told to make a positive comment when you saw a positive behavior or a positive result. Unfortunately, this approach ignores 50 years of attempts to teach managers and supervisors interpersonal skills to compensate for the fact that most managers and supervisors do not have good interactive skills and cannot deliver a positive comment in a convincing manner. They come across as insincere and scripted – which is perceived by employees to be an agenda to manipulate them rather than a real effort to acknowledge their contribution. So the most important factor in creating and sustaining organizational change is not being performed effectively.
The result of all this interpersonal chaos is that employees distance themselves from the organizational change objectives and continue to behave in ways that are comfortable for them. Result: Zero net change in the culture. Safety, quality, productivity, service – do not reflect behavioral efficiencies incorporated in the initiatives that were designed for that purpose.
What managers and supervisors need and do not have is a clear understanding of the verbal and non-verbal responses that strengthen their likability and subsequently their relationship with employees. Their credibility is strengthened as well when they make a positive comment about the employee’s job behavior. The answerable question is, “what do and I need to say – and how do I say it – in a way that strengthens my likability and ability to deliver a positive comment about their work that they perceive as sincere and honest.”
I have compiled a list of things supervisors and managers can say and do that will both build strong, positive relationships with their reports and reinforce specific performance behaviors and results. Similarly, I have made a list of the behaviors that turn employees off and make the supervisor aversive. Items on this list create avoidance behavior on the part of employees.
Behaviors That Build Relationships and Reinforce the Behavior of Others
- Ask an employee for their views or to share information
- Listen without interrupting
- Present your suggestions constructively
- Talk positively about others
- Accept the feelings of others
- Talk with others as equals
- Share information and opinions openly and honestly
- Comfort others constructively on difficult or sensitive issues
- Encourage the ideas of opinions of others
- Emphasize solutions when problems are discussed
- Stay on the conversational topic until others have been heard
- State your agreement with others when possible
- Look for positive in situations
- Mention even the smallest improvement
- Take time out of a busy schedule to talk with others
- Offer to help others
- Ask others about family and interests
- Encourage others when things are not going well
- Spend time in the work area
- Ask questions for learning or recognizing accomplishment
- Keep confidential information confidential
- Earn the trust of others by being trustworthy
- Express interest in others
- Include yourself as a team member, not the boss
- Use “we” instead of “I”
Behaviors That Punish Others and Weaken Relationships
- Exhibit distracting mannerisms
- Show disinterest during conversations by sighing, rolling eyes, or drumming fingers
- Monopolize conversations
- Interrupts others
- Maintains a sour facial expression
- Insult or verbally abuses others
- Disregard others opinions
- Complain or whine
- Criticizes and find fault
- Refuse to negotiate or compromise
- Ridicules others
- Patronize or talk down to others
- Make others feel guilty
- Become emotional
- Play games with people and manipulate
- Belittle others
- Get angry when you don’t get your way
- Make snide remarks
- Say one thing about someone in public and another in private
- Get angry with others when they disagree
- Look away when talking to someone
- Intimidate others
- Be constantly pessimistic
- Talk only about problems not about what is going right
- Evade honest questions
- Punish others with words – “you should, you better”
- Display frustration with others
- Exhibits pushy behavior
- Divert conversation by changing subject
- Ask loaded or accusing questions
- Usually disagree
- Overuse “why” questions
- Breaks confidence and doesn’t keep promises
- Flatter others insincerely
- Joke at inappropriate times
- Brag, show-off, just talk about yourself
- Talk about others behind their back
- Take credit for accomplishment of others
- Use “I” too much
- Constantly sarcastic
- Find something wrong with everything
- Always change something or point out how it could have been better
- Make others feel stupid or unprepared
- Overuse negative feedback
- Act preoccupied when listening to someone
- Belittles the accomplishments of others
- Criticizes the ideas and opinions of others
- Ask questions for the purpose of fixing blame or criticizing
All of these relationship building behaviors and relationship destroying behavior came out of a survey I did many years ago. I worked with a company that characterized their main problem as employee job satisfaction. The symptom was a high rate of turnover. The frontline employees were asked to come up with a list of things their supervisor did that they didn’t like and things they did that they liked. The above lists include most of what they came up with.
Unfortunately, most of the supervisors were guilty of the punishing behaviors; very few were described as exhibiting the positive behaviors. Organizations whose supervisors are punishing in their interactions with employees create an environment where change is almost impossible to achieve. Change is driven by new job behavior. New behavior has to be recognized and reinforced to be strengthened and to become new job habits. Most organizations do not have the know-how to deal with this issue because they don’t have the knowledge to diagnose the problem correctly.
Encouraging employees to behave more safely on the job, means reinforcing and recognizing safe job behaviors. Positive feedback does not work if it is mired in the context of poor supervisor-employee relationships. Coworkers are often guilty of the same negative, relationship destroying behaviors as their supervisors. Subsequently, team work is difficult to create.
Organizational performance will always be sub-optimal as long as the interactional skills of managers and supervisors are counterproductive. Addressing and correcting this problem will improve organizational performance by upwards of 30%. Accurate diagnosis is a simple as asking employees what behaviors do they find punishing and what behaviors do they find rewarding – then, share these anonymous findings with the supervisors and perform intermittent progress surveys. This alone with demonstrate immediate improvement.