The behavior of individuals on a team or staff is one of the most interesting 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 exactly the culture and productivity they are reinforcing it almost always elicits an "...oh ya?" response.
Of course no leader sets out to reinforce low productivity or a negative culture yet often that is exactly what happens. Getting into that bind usually happened over a long period of time 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 it was an unspoken rule that when someone got their work done early that they got to sweep and clean the shop. The intent had been to ensure everyone was seen as being busy during the shift but as I am sure some of you realize it also had the effect of ensuring no one finished early and the net result was low productivity.
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 as such 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 input 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?
The path to the kind of productivity or culture you have is made up of all of these types of decisions and actions and 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 start 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 or walk out on the production floor or have 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.
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