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Behavioral Leadership – Critical Behaviors

by Jerry Pounds

Behavioral Safety has helped leaders around the world understand the value of identifying explicit, observable employee behaviors that are linked to safety – or more specifically, to injury prevention and employee well-being. Since behavior is observable, it can be recorded when it occurs and thus behavior-based safety turns instances of safe behavior into upstream measures. These measurements enable leaders to “manage” the level of safety in their organizations more precisely than downstream measures of incidents and injuries.

The conceptual roots of the behavioral safety movement are grounded in the science of behavior analysis – the science of behavior change. In business and industry, behavior analysts help organizations improve human performance. The core purpose of quality initiatives, behavioral safety, and management development is to encourage and support behaviors that contribute to organizational effectiveness. U.S. corporations spend billions of dollars trying to encourage their associates to do things differently (that is, to change their behavior) in order to come up with new ideas, work more safely, improve interpersonal effectiveness (as in talking to employees in a manner that encourages engagement and commitment to the companies’ performance goals), and take steps to eliminate waste.

The efficacy of performance improvement initiatives, training, and management development are drastically constrained by the fact that behavior change principles are not incorporated (that is, designed) into the initiatives. Most corporate improvement initiatives are full of waste; they leave out critical behavior change tools and practices that could accelerate both the rate of behavior change and the effectiveness of the change process. The most expensive problem in U.S. organizations is that leadership cannot recognize what they do not know about human behavior change.

For example, when you were working your way up the career ladder, did anyone in authority ever say to you that you needed to “develop” a “sense of urgency?” Or perhaps, your supervisor, parent, teacher or coach told you that you needed “to become” or “to be” one of the following:

  • Ambitious
  • Organized
  • Committed
  • Dedicated
  • Energetic
  • A Self-starter
  • Dependable
  • Responsible
  • A Team Player
  • A Problem-solver
  • Focused
  • A People Person

Did it irritate you? Make you mad? Confuse you? Overwhelm you? Did you take it personally – cause you to become emotional, defensive? Make you feel bad about yourself? Cause you to dislike your supervisor or manager? Using sloppy, imprecise words in performance coaching elicits emotionalism, defensiveness, and resistance to change. Leaders who do not understand how to break down words that describe traits into words that describe behaviors – something employees can change – are doomed to frustration.

If you responded emotionally to sloppy verbal coaching, your response was not because you were oversensitive. When your manager says you “need to develop a sense of urgency,” it sounds like a criticism about “who you are” when we should be getting feedback on “what we have done or not done” – your behavior. Most leaders, managers, and supervisors do not have experience in breaking down tasks into the subsets of behaviors, then breaking down the subsets into finer grained, more precise individual behaviors that are linked together to culminate into a performance result.

The process of dissecting tasks, accomplishments, results, and achievements into the specific behaviors that compose their architecture is a form of behavioral root cause analysis. Telling a supervisor that he or she needs to be “a people person” is the same as telling an employee working in a factory to “avoid getting hurt”; neither admonition will be effective. Employees needs more guidance – more specificity around exactly what they need to do or not do that leads them to improve interpersonal skills in the people-person example and to work safely in the avoid-getting-hurt example. The error in each of these instances is one of not precisely identifying the behavior you want from the performer.

Often leaders assume that it is codling employees to precisely pinpoint the behavior that will lead them to succeed. Generally, managers and leaders seem to find it distasteful to coach others about precise responses (i.e., behaviors). It is as if employees can only demonstrate their worth or earn their pay if they “figure out” what behavior is necessary to be successful.

Many leaders are self-motivated, highly intelligent, work-oriented, obsessive types; maybe most are. They rise to the top by pushing themselves past barriers and to performing better – to be the best. It is understandable that they would find micro-level behavioral coaching distasteful. The feeling that “others should do what I did” is pervasive. When we have paid a price for what we have learned, we hate to see others being handed the answers – being spoon-fed with the “right behavior.”

If you ask your best salesperson, customer service agents, IT personnel, and HR representatives to describe two things they say or do that causes them to perform better than their peers, you will find that their success is most often a product of something they “do” differently—a behavior, rather than some innate trait or talent they were born with. In the company you are currently working for, is there anyone who is identifying the differentiating behaviors—the behaviors of excellence for every job description, work unit, team, department, and business unit?

My experience in interviewing leaders and employees at every organizational level and function tells me that sometimes a single behavior can make the difference between mediocrity and the exemplary. In customer service, one sentence spoken in the right tone can defuse a problem and create a lifelong customer. The best salesperson usually does one or two things that the average salesperson does not do. Every behavior that can build a stronger organization, team, customer base, or sales force that is unidentified is lost profit and opportunity.

Client Example

One of my clients experienced performance success by using behavioral investigation to resolve what appeared to be a resistant quality problem. They were in the business of producing sterile egg embryos that were later used to create a vaccine that prevented a certain disease in chickens. If the embryos were not perfectly sterile, the vaccine was useless. They were achieving about a 91 percent success rate in producing the quality embryos.

Several managers were in my training class learning about the value of being able to identify specific job behaviors that were critical to performance. One manager had a flash of brilliance: “Why don’t I ask the employees in the lab if they know what specific behaviors would improve quality?” This seems like an obvious tactic, but it is not available to managers, supervisors, or employees who do not know how to break performance tasks down into specific behaviors and analyze the impact of those behaviors.

The manager was so excited about the potential of this approach that he went out during the next break and phoned the lab. He asked lab supervisor Iris, “Could you and your team come up with three or four things you could do that would reduce the number of off-quality embryos we are making?” He proceeded to give her enough information to understand that by “you could do” he was talking about specific behaviors that would reduce off-quality embryos.

Iris said, “Sure!” When he called her back an hour later the lab team had produced a list of five key behaviors that would reduce off-quality embryos. They were going to track them for a few days until the behaviors became habit. Within one week, quality embryos had risen from 91 percent to 98 percent. The only change had been the identification of key behaviors related to solving a problem.

One of the largest hospital systems in America reduced its billing cycle time by 50+ days. All they did was ask employees to identify behaviors—things they could do—to reduce the cycle time. Over a period of 12 months, employees identified behaviors that saved the hospital over $200,000,000.

There is a big return for identifying success behavior.

Bottom Line:

  • People can change what they say or what they do – that is, their behavior
  • Business results are compilations of individual, discrete behaviors linked to an important result and they can be identified and modified
  • Every organization is experiencing waste and diminished profits because they do not know how to coach their employees to discover value-added behaviors – best practices, creative shortcuts, discretionary practices – that would lead to enhanced performance
  • Dormant value-added behaviors represent the largest untapped equity in American business and industry
  • Any leader, manager, supervisor, professional, technical, or frontline employee can identify several behaviors – things they can do to increase their company’s profitability – in less than an hour.
  • Untapped improvement behavior represents a source of organizational profitability; it is there for the taking…I mean, identifying.
  • Jerry Pounds is VP International Development for Quality Safety Edge.