How much better could your office, team, or department perform if they really wanted to? How many in your group are giving you their best effort? The potential you’re missing out on could be more than you ever imagined. Productivity across different industries has improved by as much as 300% when managers employed proven performance management techniques. Would you like to see even a fraction of that kind of improvement among the people you lead?
- Performance improvement is all about managing behavior. While human behavior might seem a complex topic beyond the realm of your expertise, you in fact have abundant relevant experience: You’ve dealt with people all your life! With a little more insight from the field of behavioral science, you might be surprised how quickly you can grasp the basic principles of performance management. A good starting place is simply to be more observant of behavior (including your own) and the factors that influence it.
- Behavior is a function of its consequences. To raise the performance of your team, it’s important to understand why people do what they do. Most managers focus on what happens before behavior occurs—planning, a new policy, task assignments, etc. But we know from research that the primary driver of behavior is what happens (or what is anticipated to happen) immediately afterwards. These consequences especially influence whether or not a behavior is repeated.
- The most effective consequence is positive reinforcement. We often associate positive reinforcement with giving praise and recognition, but a broader definition is “any consequence that follows a behavior and increases its frequency in the future” (Daniels). This definition includes the natural cause-and-effect relationships that we often take for granted. For example, the light coming on when we flip the switch or the car coming to a stop when we push the brake pedal. But managers usually have to create positive consequences to reinforce desired behaviors among their employees.
- The most common created consequence in your office is probably "nothing." When a member of your team gives effort beyond the norm and it goes unnoticed or unacknowledged, that’s what behavioral scientists call “extinction”—the no response consequence. Why extinction? Because it’s an effective way to discourage someone from repeating that behavior. Unfortunately, this is the prevailing consequence in most A/E firm offices. No wonder we don’t get more discretionary effort from employees; it usually gets overlooked.
So with those principles as a backdrop, let me offer a few suggestions for motivating your team to give you their best effort:
Set clear expectations. No doubt you are familiar with the importance of making clear what you as manager expect of the team. But if consequences motivate, what your team members expect is just as important. Outline the positive consequence(s) that will occur if certain outcomes are achieved (e.g., Friday afternoon off if the Friday noon deadline is met).
Observe work activities and provide immediate feedback. Failing to monitor work as it is being performed is a common mistake. Obviously doing so allows you to confirm that the task is being performed properly, and gives you early warning if changes are necessary. Equally valuable is the opportunity to provide positive feedback (or corrective feedback, if necessary) as the work is done. You may argue that you are too busy to take time to observe other people working. But helping the team be more productive must be among your highest priorities.
Don’t discount the value of positive talk. Many managers think employees are best motivated by financial rewards or other tangible expressions of gratitude. But the research doesn’t support this conclusion. Simply giving the team your time and attention and expressing your appreciation for their work can be a powerful influence in raising performance. Unfortunately, based on the feedback I’ve gotten over the years through employee surveys and interviews, failure to simply acknowledge good performance is common in our industry.
Try different approaches to discover what best motivates at the individual level. Different people respond differently to specific consequences, so there is no cookbook approach to providing positive reinforcement. You could ask team members what motivates them. But a better approach is to figure this out yourself. Listen for and observe what team members value most, what they get enthusiastic about, what tasks they prefer doing when they have a choice.
Be on your guard for inappropriate or unintentional negative consequences. When team members are faced with the choice of essentially “do this or else,” that’s negative reinforcement. You can get results that way—at least in terms of meeting requirements—but you’ll not get discretionary effort nor draw out their best abilities. Negative reinforcement is pervasive in many firms, even though it’s often not intentional. Ask this question: Is your team doing the work because they want to or because they have to? If the latter, look for opportunities to use more positive reinforcement to make the work more rewarding.
Don’t rely on delayed rewards to motivate top performance. Immediate consequences wield much stronger influence on behavior than delayed rewards, even when the latter are much desired. Consider how many people forgo the obvious benefits of better health because that immediate snack, smoke, or missed workout has the greater pull. That’s why annual bonuses, for example, are inadequate in inspiring better performance on a day-to-day basis (although I'm not advising against them per se). A simple “I couldn't do this without your help” today is more powerful than a $5,000 check in December when it comes to motivating your team to deliver their best.