How to change the behaviour of your staff

Jerome Parisse-Brassens

Do you actively manage the behaviour of your employees? Can you say, hand on heart, that you have put things in place in the business to ensure behaviours are under control? Is your Board asking you to? Are you clear on how you can influence the behaviour of others above or below you? If not, this article may provide you with some answers.

Managing behaviours: How to change the behaviour of your staff

Why manage behaviour?

Think Wells Fargo. The organisation was recently in the limelight for all the wrong reasons. The Los Angeles City Attorney and the Office of the Controller of the Currency (OCC) fined the bank $185 million because more than 2 million bank accounts or credit cards were opened or applied for without customers' knowledge between May 2011 and July 2015. Some 5,300 employees were dismissed because “they had done the wrong thing.” The CEO lost his job. Had behaviour been managed, this could have been avoided.

Think Volkswagen. The company has been fined millions of dollars and is paying compensations to thousands of customers for having used a software to cheat on emissions testing for more than 30 million diesel vehicles around the world. The CEO and a number of senior staff lost their jobs. Had behaviour been managed, this could have been avoided.

The list goes on. The consequences of not managing behaviour of employees can be terrible, as in loss of life when safety is at risk. Sometimes it is reputation that is impacted, and sometimes the business disappears entirely. One thing is sure: everyone suffers.

Leaders and managers are very comfortable managing the tasks carried out by employees (I call this the WHAT). They are however often not so comfortable managing the way these tasks are carried out (I call this the HOW). Managing HOW tasks get done is about managing the behaviour of your people, which is often not addressed at an organisational level. This is a mistake, as not doing it can lead to:

  • Low staff engagement
  • Low morale
  • Loss of reputation
  • Increased risk
  • Impact on financial results
  • Increased recruiting and compensation costs
  • Waste of time and resources

What is managing behaviour?

You may have heard of managing behaviours or behaviour management in a health or education context: “Behaviour management is a process that guides people to change their actions within a specific context. It is usually used to change negative behaviours and habits (…) The process involves identifying the negative behaviour, raising awareness about alternative behaviours, changing the environment to reduce negative behaviour and offering positive reinforcement to encourage alternative behaviours.”

Parents frequently use those techniques to change children's behaviour at home. They identify the trigger for the behaviour, and which behaviours they want to encourage and which ones they want to discourage. Identifying the consequences of negative behaviours is the final step.

It is not that different in a professional environment. Staff need to be aware of the behaviours that are okay and those that aren’t, and why. Leaders and managers need to support them in the process. They need to make sure they have put everything in place to facilitate the development of the appropriate behaviours and the elimination of others.

What makes it tricky in a professional environment is that there are more than two parents and a child to take into account. There is often a complex level of hierarchy and divisions, groups and teams that interact in a variety of forms. There are also a number of quirks, as described by my colleague Amanda Fajak, which make things even more complicated. For example, the fact that we are naturally obedient and will not confront hierarchy, or the fact that we won’t speak up if we think someone else will.

“Managing behaviour” is not about controlling and knowing how every single employee in the business is behaving at any point in time. It is about putting things in place to ensure that staff are encouraged to adopt the appropriate behaviours and drop the bad ones.

So how can you manage behaviour in the office?

Managing behaviour is not as difficult as it sounds. There are a number of steps that leaders and managers can take to ensure staff “do the right thing”.

1. Be clear on the behaviours you want to see in the organisation and those you do not want to see.

This may sound obvious, but if you are not clear on the behaviours you need for success – those you want to see adopted by employees – you won’t be able to manage them. Beyond the obvious behaviours that I call “permission to play”, such as respect, no bullying, or integrity, thee are other behaviours that may make the whole difference between great and average results. Examples include sharing information, speaking up, challenging each other, actively listening, keeping your promises, or bringing the voice of the customer into the conversation.

You need to think about what you are trying to achieve and define the behaviours that will enable you to get there. The next step is to clearly communicate what you expect people to do and not to do. Best is to focus on a few behaviours at a time (say 3 or 4) to avoid confusion. Remember, we cannot change more than 2 or 3 behaviours at a time.

2. Encourage and discourage behaviour

Now that you have clarified and communicated what you expect from everyone, you can start encouraging and discouraging it to reinforce the message.

Encouraging behaviour is about letting people know when they are doing the right thing and recognising them for it. A number of tools and techniques are at your disposal, from thanking someone for displaying the right behaviour (When was the last time you did that?) to publicly praising them, or using the organisational performance management and reward systems in place. Do you promote people based on outcomes or on behaviour, or on both?

Similarly, you can discourage behaviour by calling on someone the moment you see them doing something that is not okay, or by developing processes that prevent people from taking the wrong path.

The worst thing you could do? Tolerate the wrong behaviours. As David Morrison, ex-Chief of the Australian Army once famously said, “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” What you tolerate becomes your lowest common denominator, in other words, it becomes the norm.

3. Be a role model

Being a role model is about influencing others in a positive way. Leaders who are aware of the shadow they cast will know that it is not what they say that matters, but what they do. The first thing a leader should do if they want to ensure staff behave appropriately is to do exactly that. There is no point asking employees to adopt a set of behaviours if yourself, as a leader, are not ready to adopt them first.

By role modeling the behaviours they want to see in others, leaders are able to positively influence everyone. For smaller organisations who do not have the means to invest in specific programs, this is the most effective thing they can do.

4. Think twice about how you make decisions

Leaders and managers should be aware of the impact their decisions have on employees. It is not so much the decision that is made than the way it is made that can influence others. Staff will interpret decisions made in the way that makes sense to them, and this may differ from what leaders intended.

Be aware that decisions - or the way we make them - often reflect what we value. Your people will conform to what they see valued in the workplace. If you have unintentionally sent a certain message when making a decision, people will start behaving in accordance with the message received. So, before you make your next decision, take a second or two to put yourself in the shoes of the people around you, and see the world as they see it. Was this decision the right one? Does it make sense to them? Does it reinforce the behaviours you want to see in everyone?

Culture is created from the messages people receive about what is valued, and symbols play a crucial role. If you truly want people to collaborate and share information, do not close the door: this can symbolise lack of collaboration. If you want employees to bring the voice of the customer into the conversation, place pictures of customers in your office or start every meeting with a customer story. If you don’t want people to behave in a hierarchical way, get rid of titles. Symbols are precious in changing people’s perceptions.

5. Create great habits

Research shows that up to 70% of what we do in organisations is just habits. This means that it is critical to identify them, to assess whether they are aligned or not with your target behaviours, and to create new powerful habits.

Habits follow a loop pattern with a trigger, followed by the behaviour (also called routine), and a reward. You need to identify all three elements to build a powerful habit. Without reward, the habit will not stick. Without trigger, it will not start.

A government organisation I am working for wanted people to show more care for each other, and wanted people to listen more. They created a habit called a check-in whereby every person was invited to briefly share how they felt at the start of each important meeting. Others could only listen and not make comments. The reward was identified as the feeling of having been heard – something that until then had been hard to achieve. The check-in process became a habit; listening skills and care improved; engagement scores shot up.

Do you discuss “managing behaviours” in your business?

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