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7 May, 2015

How Poor Leadership Competencies Strangle Performance

The productivity and performance of your organisation rests in the hands of your youngest, least-experienced or least-skilled managers. The impact that their leadership competencies have on delivering your organisation’s strategy, far outweighs that of you and your senior managers.

How can this be? Well, up to 70% of an employee’s performance is driven by their immediate manager. In most organisations more people report to a frontline manager than anyone else. For this reason it pays to understand how your frontline managers can, accidentally, strangle performance.

Stop obsessing about results

The key factors that enhance employees’ performances have been known for over 30 years and have been confirmed by extensive international research during the past decade.

Before looking at those human-performance factors, we first must make a distinction between the results we want and how we get those results.

Imagine you’re the coach of a sports team. Your team has lost for the last three weekends in a row. It’s now Tuesday and you have your next coaching session with your team. Will you spend most of the session talking about the team’s results and what you want them to achieve in the future? Or will you focus on the skills and behaviours that need to be improved for a better result next weekend? Of course, you’ll spend your time on the skills and behaviours they need for success.

The same applies in business. The results you want don’t just turn up — someone has to do something. So, if you want the results of your people to change, their work behaviour needs to change.

Results are supported by behaviour — you can most effectively manage results by managing the work behaviour of your people.

Components of behaviour

Plenty is known about managing behaviour. The famous psychologist B.F. Skinner was a pioneer in this field and the Skinnerian behaviour-change model suggests that all behaviour has three components:

  1. Information comes to a person telling them what to do (Activator).
  2. The person responds in some way (Behaviour).
  3. The action of responding has an outcome that increases or decreases the likelihood that the same behaviour will occur again in similar circumstances (Consequence).

For example, you walk into a dark room (Activator), so you flick the light switch (Behaviour), which results in the light coming on and you can see (Consequence). This sequence is generally known at the ABC model.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that progress was made in applying this knowledge to the workplace. One of the leaders in doing so was Thomas Gilbert, who trained under Skinner at Harvard University.

Gilbert applied the ABC model to the workplace by observing that human performance is a function of the interaction between a person and their environment. This suggests that for adequate performances to occur, several conditions must be met. Taking the example of walking into a dark room and turning on the light, we can construct a table showing the ABC model related to both the work environment and the person:

ACTIVATOR
(Information)
BEHAVIOUR
(Support)
CONSEQUENCE
(Motivation)
Environment Data (dark room) Instruments (light switch) Incentives (light on)
Person Discrimination (perceives darkness) Response capacity (can flick switch) Motives (likes a lit room)

Adapted from Human Performance – Engineering Worthy Performance by Thomas F. Gilbert. McGraw-Hill 1978.

Taking this further, we can understand how, for example, telecommunications companies engineer telephone-answering behaviour by manipulating three of these six variables, all of them environmental. They do a lot of research to perfect the tone and loudness of the ring (data), to ensure the receiver is easy to handle (instruments) and the caller can be heard (incentives). It looks like this:

CONDITIONS FOR BEHAVIOUR TO OCCUR

ACTIVATOR
(Information)
BEHAVIOUR
(Support)
CONSEQUENCE
(Motivation)
Environmental Support Data
The phone’s ring must be loud enough.
Instruments
The receiver must be removable or be built in.
Incentives
The caller must be audible.
Person’s Potential Behaviour Knowledge
The answerer must have the ability to recognise the ring tone.
Response Capacity
The answerer must be able to reach for the phone.
Motives
The answerer must want to talk to people on the phone.

Adapted from Human Performance – Engineering Worthy Performance by Thomas F. Gilbert. McGraw-Hill 1978.

How to create incompetence

Gilbert commented that the two causes of poor performance most commonly suggested are motives (they don’t care) and capacity (they’re too dumb). Nothing much seems to have changed over the years. But these are usually the last places to look for causes of incompetence. Except for a few strange individuals, who your selection process should have weeded out, people generally do care about how they perform and defects in capacity (mental or physical) are the exception, not the rule.

As a result of these observations, Gilbert developed a behaviour model for creating incompetence, which describes the steps required to strangle performance.

A BEHAVIOUR MODEL FOR STRANGLING PERFORMANCE

INFORMATION SUPPORT FOR BEHAVIOUR MOTIVATION
Environmental Supports Data1. Hide from people what is expected of them.2. Give people little or no guidance about how to perform well.3. Don’t let people know how well they are performing. Tools1. Design the tools and processes of work without ever consulting the people who use them.2. Do not provide the tools, materials or processes to assist people to perform their job. Incentives1. Make sure that poor performers get paid as well as good ones.2. Don’t make use of nonmonetary incentives.3. Design the job so that it has no future.
Person’s Potential Behaviour Knowledge1. Leave training to chance.2. Make training unnecessarily difficult.3. Place people into roles of which they have no knowledge or experience. Capacity1. Schedule performance for times when people are not at their sharpest.2. Select people for tasks they have intrinsic difficulties in performing. Motives1. Select people who have an inherent dislike for the type of work they need to do.2. Avoid arranging working conditions that employees would find more pleasant.3. Give pep talks rather than incentives to promote performance in difficult situations.

Adapted from Human Performance – Engineering Worthy Performance by Thomas F. Gilbert. McGraw-Hill 1978.

How to turn performance around

From this concept Gilbert developed what he called a “Behaviour-engineering model,” which simply shows all of the factors that positively impact performance. It looks like this:

THE BEHAVIOUR-ENGINEERING MODEL

INFORMATION SUPPORT FOR BEHAVIOUR MOTIVATION
Environmental Supports Data1. Provide a description of what is expected of performance.2. Provide clear and relevant guides to adequate performance.3. Provide relevant and frequent feedback about the adequacy of performance. Tools1. Design the tools and processes of work with input from the people who use them.2. Provide the necessary tools, materials or processes to assist people to perform their job. Incentives1. Provide adequate financial incentives made contingent upon performance.2. Make non-monetary incentives (such as praise and recognition) available.3. Provide career development opportunities.
Person’s Potential Behaviour Knowledge1. Provide well-designed training that matches the requirements of exemplary performance.2. Place people into roles for which they have adequate levels of knowledge and experience. Capacity1. Ensure flexible scheduling of performance to match peak capacity.2. Select people for tasks for which they have a natural strength. Motives1. Recruit people to match the realities of the work situation.2. Assess people’s motives to work in the job for which they are being recruited.

Adapted from Human Performance – Engineering Worthy Performance by Thomas F. Gilbert. McGraw-Hill 1978.

Gilbert published his ideas in the 1970s. How do they stand up to scrutiny today?

Perhaps the largest and most comprehensive study of how great managers inspire top performance in employees was completed by Gallup Inc.

The key drivers of performance that emerged from the Gallup research are as follows:

  1. I know what is expected of me at work.
  2. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  4. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
  6. There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  7. At work, my opinions seem to count.
  8. The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  9. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
  10. I have a best friend at work.
  11. In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
  12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

Virtually all of these human-performance factors are predicted by Gilbert’s behaviour- engineering model. The two that are not, are actually outside a frontline manager’s direct control.

Let’s take another look at each of the components of behaviour identified by Gilbert and check which of the elements of great managing confirmed by the Gallup research were predicted by his behaviour-engineering model.

DATA

  • I know what is expected of me at work.
  • The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  • In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.

TOOLS

  • I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  • At work, my opinions seem to count.

INCENTIVES

  • In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  • This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

KNOWLEDGE

  • There is someone at work who encourages my development.

CAPACITY

  • At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

MOTIVES

  • My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.

If you ensure that your frontline managers are pro-actively addressing all of these elements, you will maximise the productivity and the performance of your people. Unfortunately, my experience and BravaTrak® data suggests that few organisations, or business units, can say that their frontline managers do this.

The consequence of neglecting these basic human-performance factors is, though accidental, strangled productivity. And just using leadership training will not address this issue.

 

To get our report “The Secret to Leadership Effectiveness”, which shows how YOU can help your organisation improve leadership quality, employee engagement, and financial success, click here.

 

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