The behavior of individuals on a team is one of the most fascinating areas of leadership study. It is also probably one of the most uncomfortable. When I meet with leaders, often one of the first issues of discussion will revolve around either performance or culture and usually both as they are intimately entwined. When I tell senior leadership that they are getting the culture and productivity they are reinforcing, it almost always elicits an "...oh ya?" response.
Of Course I Want Poor Performance - Said No One Ever!
Of course, no leader sets out to reinforce low productivity or negative culture, yet often that is what happens. Getting into that bind usually happened over a long period, and getting out of it will take some time, as well, but the good news is that there is a solution.
In the simplest terms, we inadvertently reinforce low productivity or poor culture based on a series of responses (or non-responses) to perceived behaviors. In one company, there was an unspoken rule - when someone got their work done early - they got to sweep and clean the shop. The intent had been to ensure everyone was seen as busy during the shift, but as I am sure some of you realize, it also had the effect of guaranteeing no one finished early, and the net result was low productivity.
Daily Reinforcement But What Kind?
That is an easy example, but there are literally hundreds of interactions that leaders have throughout a typical day that have the net effect of reinforcing or ignoring (what we call extinguishing) behaviors. A crew needs to meet a deadline but doesn't make it, and they need to stay late to complete the task and collect overtime pay in the process. An employee comes into your office to complain about something or someone, and in the interest of getting them out of your office so you can get back to work, you promise that you will look into it. You notice one of your staff not wearing the proper safety equipment and make a note to talk with them about it but get busy with your daily responsibilities and forget all about it. In a staff meeting, feedback is sought, but when a new employee offers some, they are belittled by the supervisor. And you wonder why one crew seems to lag behind the others, why that person seems to "always" be in your office, why safety events are on the rise, or why staff are not engaged, and no one is willing to come up with new ideas?
What Do You Want?
The path to the productivity or culture you currently have is made up of many of these types of decisions. The first step in turning this around is in recognizing that this is indeed happening. The second step is to decide on what behaviors you want. This may seem obvious, but our environments have actually taught us to look for those things we don't want. To test this, ask yourself, have you ever told your parents or had your kids ask you, "can you name one thing that I have done right in my life?" If that left you a tad uncomfortable, don't worry, you are in good company.
You need to be intentional, identify the behaviors you want, and start to reinforce those behaviors. This is hard at first, but once you begin to identify those behaviors, you will be surprised at how fast things fall into place, and I suspect you will be surprised at the staff you start to interact with and who you never noticed before.
Next time you take a look around the office, walk out on the production floor, or have a staff meeting ask yourself what kinds of things am I reinforcing? Like the answer - great, don't like the answer - time to make a change. Hu centered leadership, think about it.