Behavior Modification Principles and Management Practice

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People are not lab animals and a good manager will recognize the idiosyncrasies of the people they manage. A “one size fits all” approach is not likely to be effective. Nevertheless, there are certain principles of shaping behavior that apply to everyone.  It is useful to keep these in mind when trying to coach a direct report, build a team, or strengthen collaboration with  colleagues.

  • Reinforcement works best in modifying behavior if it is given immediately after the behavior
  • Reinforcing consequences strengthen or encourage the behavior they follow
  • Punishing consequences weaken or discourage the behavior they follow
  • Vague descriptions of employee behavior such as “lazy,” “unmotivated,” “bad attitude,” etc. are speculative but more importantly they do not lead to actionable steps on the part of the manager or the employee
  • Problem behaviors and desirable behaviors need to be pinpointed in behavioral To the extent possible they should be stated in specific, objective and measurable terms
  • We need to look at antecedents and the consequences of a specific behavior
  • We need to systematically provide consequences (either reinforcing or punishing) for specific behaviors
  • It is often unhelpful to speculate as to why a behavior is occurring; it is more important to focus on the behavior itself
  • Once a behavior is identified, it can be tracked or periodically measured. The measurement can be either of behavior or an end result. Samples can be taken either continuously or on an intermittent basis
  • The power of consequences on employee behaviors will be determined by four major factors:
    • It’s raw magnitude, e.g., a bonus of $50.00 or a bonus of $5000.00
    • Impact-whether the impact will personally impact the employee, e.g., a promotion or whether it will have a general impact, e.g., will it affect the team’s morale; Personal consequences have more power.
    • Timeliness-The longer the consequence is delayed, the less powerful it will be in its effect on behavior
    • Probability-Whether the consequence is certain or uncertain. Certain consequences have more power. If we thought we would get a ticket every time we speeded, we would never exceed the limit.
  • It is often useful to look at the consequences on an organizational level to see whether the company might inadvertently contributing to behavior that is unwanted:
    • Dangerous cultures occur when punishing consequences outweigh reinforcing consequences for both desirable and undesirable behavior
    • Silly cultures reward both good and bad performance; this can be very demoralizing for people who are doing good work. In time it can ratchet the performance of the whole organization down to its lowest common denominator
    • Healthy cultures reward good performance and minimize any punishing consequences that might discourage desirable behavior. Conversely powerful punishers exist to discourage undesirable behavior