Tapping into Employee Behaviors with Exponential Impact

Every business goal is driven by human behavior. It follows then that your employees’ performance—their behavior and results—is the most important output of your role as a leader. Considering that your coaching time and energy are limited, it’s especially important to identify the behaviors that will bring the most benefit to them and the business. When you identify the most impactful work behaviors while prioritizing an important concept derived from behavioral science, the behavioral cusp, the outcome is that much greater. Professor Jesus Rosales Ruiz of the University of North Texas, one of the primary developers of this concept, describes the behavioral cusp as behavior change that “opens the door to especially broad or especially important further behavior change.”

The behavioral cusp, as a concept, tells us is that there are certain behaviors or skills that once learned will produce significant and far-reaching impact in that person’s skill set, career, or life.  A behavioral cusp is like a gateway that when opened gives us access to numerous other gateways.  A clear-cut example of a behavioral cusp is reading. The moment children learn to read, they gain access to an innumerable set of skills from an infinite number of subjects. These skills will continue to branch out into even more areas of learning. With the ability to read, a person can now learn about animals, history, or music. They can continue learning about subtopics in each of those—like canine behavior, Viking ships, or West African Desert Blues. This enables them to further expand their repertoire, eventually entering into expert levels of knowledge and skill in each field. And it all starts with the opening of one door—the essential behavioral cusp of reading. 

Identifying and supporting behavioral cusps in the workplace is a highly pragmatic and profitable plan for developing and coaching employees because they are single behaviors or skills that will exponentially expand a performer’s skill set and ability to impact the business. If you consider that a leader’s coaching time and energy are investments (on the part of the leader and the company), then the ROI is clearly established when leveraging cusps in the workplace. This approach gives leaders a clear business rationale for what behaviors they should focus on during their coaching and gives HR and Learning and Development functions direction for their training.

The present need for organizations to adapt to change quickly is significant, and it seems only to grow as time progresses. Whether it’s the change inherent in a merger, a growing need for employees to adopt technological tools, or increasingly dynamic competitive pressures, companies need to be able to show organizational agility and rapidly change to adapt to environments that are constantly in flux. This is a uniquely behavioral opportunity. Organizational agility (the ability for companies to change quickly and efficiently) can only happen when they have competence in deliberately motivating critical behavior change. This is no longer just merely a competitive advantage; it has become a necessity for survival in today’s environment. The far-reaching implications of cusps are a powerful lever to pull in the face of this need.

For example, let’s consider a new supervisor who has been promoted from the front line in your organization. There will be a number of skills required for their success. Naturally, you need to be selective and prioritize what they should learn because trying to teach too much at once will be a frustrating waste of your time.  A behavioral cusp that is essential to develop in your supervisors, as early as possible in their tenure, is their ability to coach. When it comes to achieving far reaching consequences for the performer as well as for the business, it’s hard to find a more important cusp to refine in a leader. After all, this skill encompasses the most important aspect of their role as supervisors—influencing the employee behaviors that produce business results. This skill can be defined as a cusp because once developed to a useful degree of proficiency, it will help the supervisor open up additional paths in their development, ones that are important to them and to the business.  As a result of their learning how to coach, they can now learn how to lead a team through challenging business objectives, address change management opportunities, and engage difficult employees.  And with this skill development, they will be deepening and branching out the value they bring to the business by coaching their employees into higher levels of safety, quality, or innovation. It’s an exponential benefit to them and to the organization.

Prioritizing cusps in your performers' developmental plans involves not just considering the most immediate skills for them to be able to most effectively “hit the ground running,” but most importantly, it provides a forward-thinking methodology that guides where you expect their skill sets to grow.  Having clarity in what cusps you want to develop at all levels of the organization—from frontline employees to executive levels—is one of the most cost-effective and strategic approaches in building employee career capital as well as in deepening your organizational talent and succession pool.

J Rosales-Ruiz and D M Baer. (1997). Behavioral cusps: a developmental and pragmatic concept for behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30(3), 533–544.

Posted by Francisco Gomez

Francisco is a bilingual performance consultant. In his free time he enjoys cooking with his wife and daughters, practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and playing jazz drums.