Monday, June 18, 2012

Motivating Change Through Reinforcement

Companies don't change until people do. And what ultimately counts as change is doing things differently. It's behavior change.

As I've written in this space before, the best way to change employee behavior is through positive reinforcement. But most managers in our business struggle with both the concept and application of positive reinforcement. We assume that occasional financial rewards serve as reinforcement. We are sparing in praise and recognition. Too often, we provide little feedback at all.

Positive reinforcement is creating favorable consequences to increase targeted behaviors. To be effective, it should be valued by the recipient, contingent on performance, certain and immediate when the desired behavior occurs.

Change, on the other hand, often works in the opposite direction. It forces people out of their comfort zone. It's inconvenient. It creates uncertainty. The desired results are usually delayed. To achieve successful, lasting change, the leader is advised to interrupt the old "rewards loop" and find ways to reinforce new behaviors. A few tips on doing this: 

Follow the previous steps in the change process to set the stage. Giving employees a compelling reason for change, describing a desirable vision for the future, and actively engaging them in defining how things will be done differently all help create a positive environment for change. Indeed, these steps form the basis for a system of positive reinforcement related to the change.

For example, promoting employee engagement through the change process can be a powerful motivator. Giving employees a sense of contributing to something greater than their individual jobs and celebrating incremental success towards established goals can directly serve as positive reinforcers. 

Establish smaller, short-term goals. Stretch goals are popular in many companies, but behavioral research indicates that they do more to demotivate than motivate. The big problem is the sense that they're distant and out of reach. Better to define goals that can be reached every few weeks or so. That gives you more opportunities to apply positive reinforcement.

But don't small goals lead to small achievements? That hasn't been the experience of those companies that use frequent milestones to provide regular positive reinforcement. It's the series of small wins that lead to large victories (much as individual plays in a ball game). It is helpful, of course, to have the long-range vision in view. But measure progress in small increments. 

Use measurement and feedback. Going back to the sports analogy, do you think the scoreboard is just for the fans? No, players unquestionably benefit from knowing the score, how much time remains, the down and distance, the number of timeouts, etc. Measurement has the same performance advantages in the workplace. The challenge is coming up with effective performance metrics.

Keep in mind that the traditional operational metrics may not be that effective in reinforcing behaviors. Instead, I suggest new measures for new ways of doing things. For example, counting new behaviors (e.g., how often client expectations are benchmarked), measuring client satisfaction, tracking work process turnaround times, monitoring employee feedback on new procedures. Be sure to measure both behaviors and outcomes. 

Monitor your PNR. This stands for positive-to-negative ratio, a measure of how many positive interactions occur in your organization for every negative one. Obviously, your efforts to use positive reinforcement to motivate new behaviors will fall short if negativity prevails. Various studies have concluded that worker productivity (and human relationships in general) are greatly impacted by PNR. The goal should be at least a 5:1 ratio--five positive interactions for every negative one (but not more than 13:1, per Gallup).

How to track? Ask employees to keep score for a few days. Count the number of positive interactions compared to negative ones. There's no specific definition; it comes down to whether the employee experiences positive or negative emotions in those interactions. If you really want to be challenged, have your colleagues score the interactions they have with you. But be prepared to take your medicine with humility. 

Beware of inadvertent reinforcers. Positive and negative reinforcement is not just what managers do. There are many reinforcers--animate and inanimate--that influence behaviors. Many of these work at odds with the changes you're trying to make in your firm. And sometimes the misplaced reinforcement comes from firm leaders themselves.

Let's say your firm is implementing a new QA/QC process. You've established several goals and measures to support frequent positive reinforcement. But despite your best efforts, many employees seemingly refuse to follow the new procedures. Why? You conduct some root cause analysis to determine the cause.

What you find is that a number of unintended reinforcers are at work. Employees bypass the process because it saves time, because it adds cost to the project, because others aren't following the process, and because employees didn't like the process to begin with (they were not involved in its creation). Further, company management exacerbates the problem by seemingly placing greater emphasis on production than quality.

These are the kind of factors that are always present in any change effort. You will need to mitigate the ones you can and overwhelm the ones you can't eliminate by being persistent in your efforts to positively reinforce the targeted new behaviors.

For more on positive reinforcement from my previous posts, I encourage you to use the search bar on the right.

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