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Behavioral Investigation: Engineering the Path to Performance

For 30 years I’ve been a Behavior Analyst Practitioner—a consultant who helps public and private organizations understand how an employee’s behavior is influenced by the environment he or she works in. The explanation that most people accept for human behavior—the “cause” for why someone does or says this or that—is that their behavior is personality-driven.

Personality is a complex subject, but I think the average person would characterize it as being the “hard-wired,” beliefs, attitudes, and predispositions that were acquired early in life, that pre-determine our personal style. Although there are major disagreements among academics about the changeability of people, it seems obvious to me that leaders, managers and supervisors can not do it in a work setting. It is expensive and futile to attempt to affect human performance by changing their internal structure.

On a more positive note, it is equally obvious that people’s behavior is extremely malleable; when you change the environment—what you say to them, what you give them attention for, what directions you provide them, the rules that govern their job, the conditions under which they can keep their job—then people change what they say and do. The thing is, we really don’t want to change people’s personalities at work—we don’t need to do that to have highly effective organizations.

I just had a lengthy conversation with a colleague in the UK.The conversation helped me make some discriminations about why people in the US have been so reluctant to embrace the value of behavioral principles. The market for performance improvement products and services in America is well established; money, awards, plaques, cups, bonuses, incentive pay and positive reinforcement all sell like hot cakes. Rewards, recognition, and positive reinforcement are chanted at every Human Resources conference; it is an American mantra—a panacea.

The latest research says that 90% of American companies—large and small—have reward and recognition strategies whose purpose is to increase loyalty, engagement and influence critical performance behaviors. We accept the use of rewards to influence behavior so unquestioningly, that the advisability and utility of rewards and recognition has the stature of common sense. Based on the strength of our current beliefs in the necessity of rewards to drive human performance, it is something of a mystery as to how we managed to build the world’s strongest economy prior to having any understanding of the benefits of reward-o-mania.

Amazingly, humanity’s technological strides and human accomplishment have been achieved by people who were driven either by interest, ethic or paycheck to do the job.Nobody held out a reward or a plaque or anything to the millions of hard working—creative geniuses that built our country. Success was the reward. Personal achievement was the reward. Self-respect was the reward. Fear of disappointment, disapproval, failure, humiliation, and starvation were in a partnership with success; while the upside of performance was a paycheck and self-respect, the downside was harsh.We knew the consequences and governed our behavior accordingly.

Positive Reinforcement is mostly associated with saying something positive to students, or children or adults when they do something—when they behave in a certain way—a way that the parent, or teacher or boss approves of. In my consulting practice it never came off well because it seemed contrived. And, because it was associated with behavior analysis and organizational behavior management, other behavior tools were dismissed along with positive reinforcement; the client threw the baby out with the bath water.

A behavior analyst in the US (a specialist in behavioral principles) either espouses the delivery of verbal positive reinforcement or he or she starves.This is “no country for old men” who think that supervisory verbal positive reinforcement is hog wash. So, my book Praise for Profit: How Rewards and Incentives are Demotivating America’s Workforce has received little attention—because I challenge venerable maxims—sacred assumptions.

There is no motivation program, incentive system, pay-for-performance plan, or award catalogue that is too puerile to be accepted and purchased in America. Yet, the same research that discovered the principle of positive reinforcement provides us with more useful tools to influence human behavior that are unused by American organizations. We can engineer work to incorporate principles of behavior that optimize human performance and minimize physical risk. But, these tools don’t have the sizzle, the promotional audacity that rewards and motivational programs have.

When someone is injured at work, the company performs an accident analysis; they want to know what specific conditions—precipitating factors in the physical environment—caused the employee to lose focus, pick the wrong tool, stand in the wrong place, or fail to put on their safety equipment. These analyses are meticulous and precise about the “thing”—the distracting sound, voice, or combination of factors that led the employee to behave unsafely. In behavior analysis, we call these antecedent conditions, and we seek to perform a similar rigorous analysis of the factors that prompt employees to exhibit value added behavior—an action that improves the product, quality or service—or a behavior that detracts from performance excellence.

Using precise behavioral work-environment engineering, barriers to performance excellence are identified and removed and factors that prompt value-added behavior are properly arranged in the environment.More importantly, every employee performance behavior has an outcome—a consequence for the employee. Sometimes a behavior linked to quality has a negative consequence for the employee—it takes extra effort, is time consuming, or requires the employee to talk to the supervisor or a coworker he or she doesn’t like.In most cases the antecedents that prompt a specific behavior and the consequences of that behavior for the employee are not obvious.

This type of analysis is referred to as an “ABC Analysis” (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence) and its rigor is as beneficial as the payoff for similar analyses in Lean Principles or Six Sigma or any other improvement system associated with systematic problem solving. My colleague in the UK reminded me that using the tools of behavior analysis (specifically identifying value-added behavior, identifying behavioral causation through an ABC Analysis, and providing meaning behavioral feedback to performers) without pushing the agenda of supervisory verbal reinforcement works well in the UK.

So, I am an anachronism, out of sync with the popular trend in America.Though I am no historian, I am familiar with the fate of those who are too early with an idea or whose ideas buck the trend.It is a losing battle. For many of history’s great names, their ideas were accepted after they were dead. I was not instrumental in discovering or researching the behavioral principles I’m discussing. I am just a foot soldier in a conflict of ideas. Any way you look at it the average foot soldier did not fair well regardless of whose side he was on.