Common Leadership Errors: Failing to Create Sustainability

Common Leadership Errors: Failing to Create Sustainability

Organizations are constantly evolving to keep up with a changing world. This evolution can include refinements to strategy, systems, processes, procedures, etc. To be successful, all these refinements require behavior change at the performer level. Leaders are not only responsible for the design and implementation of these improvements, but they are responsible for getting performers to adapt their behavior to the changes. Motivating performers to adapt their performance is where this common leadership error occurs.

The failing to create sustainability error occurs when leaders focus most of their time and effort designing change but spend little time supporting the behavioral shifts necessary to create changes in performer behavior. Leaders spend countless hours determining the best way to improve how work is done, hire technical experts and consulting firms to help with design, invest in project management teams to implement the necessary changes, and have marketing people develop a compelling message about “why” the change is being made. They might even do some initial employee training. But when the change is turned on, leaders often pat each other on the backs and walk away, expecting performers to immediately and naturally shift their behavior patterns. This is rarely the case and leads to many initiatives producing subpar results or failing altogether.

Instead of failing to create sustainability, leaders should add the additional and necessary step of creating a sustainability coaching plan focused on the behaviors that need to be changed to support the improvement. The recipe for creating sustainability is not complicated, but it does take effort. To create sustained change, three ingredients are needed: Repetition, Feedback, and Positive Reinforcement.

Repetition: As with the development of any new skill, the more deliberate practice someone can do, the faster a new habit can be built. This might require adjusting training processes or shift how work is done to create “drills” for people to practice repeatedly. You can see this practice built into many high-reliability organizations such as military branches and pilot training programs. You have also experienced it if you ever took a golf lesson at a driving range.

Feedback: Practicing a new skill is often not enough. Performers must also get information about how well they are doing and if they are improving. Subtle improvements often go unnoticed when someone is developing a new habit or behavior pattern. Having someone there to confirm the performer is improving, or what to do when they are not, is very helpful. A feedback loop is also necessary so that information flows back up to the leaders and organization. If the new process leads to “more work” or “something negative” to the performer, then the new process should be adjusted to remove the obstacle. Without these two types of feedback mechanisms, sustainment is difficult.

Positive Reinforcement: The last necessary ingredient is positive reinforcement. In the beginning, this will need to be provided by leadership—and in vast amounts. Think of positive reinforcement as fuel for behavior change. Vehicles require a lot more fuel to get up to highway speeds than they do to maintain it. The same goes for behavior change. Build into the improvement plan the ability for leaders to go out and deliver positive reinforcement for early attempts and improvements. Then look to ensure the changes implemented have some natural reinforcement for the performers. If it does not, design it in. Positive reinforcement is how sustaining change happens and new habits are built.

Adding a sustainability coaching plan is key for creating long-term behavior change and improving organizational performance. Without it, organizations are left with a costly, yet poorly implemented change that will yield subpar returns. Behavior change will not happen because the company says so. A plan to create that change is needed. Doing so will produce greater returns and drive organizational success.

Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.