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Changing Employee Behaviors


In a world where people often reject being bossed around or told how to act, how can managers effectively influence employees’ behaviors in the workplace? What’s the key to fostering and sustaining real change? There are three proven methodologies to think about:

1) Nudging

Nudging refers to providing triggers that push an employee towards a certain choice without actually forcing him/her to choose it. As opposed to imposing rules saying “You shall…” or “You shall not…”, nudging enables employees to make their own decisions (albeit, being guided to make the preferred decisions by design), which allows the employee to feel more confident and satisfied with his/her decisions.

Let’s say an employee is not performing up to par. If a manager reacts by setting strict deadlines on projects and threatening consequences, the worker has little say in the situation and is likely to feel even more overwhelmed. Alternatively, this manager can react by evaluating and resolving the barriers hindering the employee in the first place. The choice of whether to change one’s current performance or not is still in the employee’s hands; however, he/she is now properly equipped with the tools and guidance to want to improve. The manager has successfully “nudged” the employee into making improvements.

“Provide coaching and feedback, then give the employee space” -Kristi Hedges, Forbes

2) Reinforcements

Reinforcements – a strategy to increase the probability of a specific response – can come in the form of rewards or punishments. These positive and negative incentives not only affect the employee involved, but also other employees witnessing them.

  1. Positive reinforcements acknowledge one’s progress and achievements; thus, encouraging repeated, good behavior. These reinforcements may come in the form of positive feedback, promotions, or even a nice lunch. Employees who see their colleagues being rewarded for their actions may also feel motivated to step up as well in hopes to be recognized.
  2. Negative reinforcements call out one for his/her shortfalls; thus, discouraging one to repeat such behavior again. These reinforcements may come in the form of negative feedback or delaying promotions.

Typically, both kinds of reinforcement are used in the workplace; it is up to the manager to find the right balance between the two. However, there is a general agreement amongst psychologists that the ratio of positive-to-negative reinforcements should be greater. Research has shown that higher performing business leadership teams had an average ratio of 5.6 compliments for every criticism.

3) Pack Mentality

It’s important to note that one’s behavior is rarely a direct reflection of him/herself, but rather a combination of contributing factors such as the work environment and other employees. Context is everything.

Pack mentality – the tendency for people to act based upon the actions of others, usually without much planning or direction – is one of the strongest human instincts.. People enjoy the security of being with the group versus against it. If you want to encourage any behavior, try to think about how you can trigger pack mentality within your organization. For instance, if you want your employees to start sharing more feedback with each other, have your leaders give/ask feedback to employees every week (and set them as KPIs that they are accountable for). Over time, it will get your employees more comfortable and wanting to mirror that behavior.

Let us know if any other approaches have worked for you! And check out our other blog post to read more about keeping employees engaged and motivated.

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