Two Truths about Performance Improvement

When it comes to influencing behavior in organizations, there are two truths that need to be considered. These truths relate to two major aspects of the organizational culture: the systems operating in the organization and the leadership practices that are allowed or encouraged within the organization. When it comes to any performance improvement endeavor, understanding each of these influences separately and together can help organizations move away from jumping to quick-fix or cheap solutions that will likely produce little to no ROI to solutions that produce sustained results.

Truth One—You can’t “good job” someone’s behavior through a bad system.

People behave in the context of their environment. How the workplace is designed, including the processes, procedures, and systems companies establish, all have a profound impact on behavior. If we put people in a bad system, the system will prevail. To quote Dr. Edwards Deming, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.” Bad systems are created when they set someone up to fail (e.g., poor training systems, cumbersome engineering, lack of tools and resources, or overly complicated SOPs), they have demotivators or punishment built into doing the work the right way (e.g., extra time, effort or frustration), or they actively encourage undesired behaviors. In such a system, it would feel like someone saying “STOP IT” every time someone does the desired behaviors or “Go ahead and do that again” when undesired behaviors occur. Adding some occasional positive feedback in these systems will often not be enough to create or sustain meaningful performance improvement simply because the volume of the system’s naturally produced feedback is too loud. Even if leadership could provide enough positive feedback to create some desired behavior change without addressing the systems issues, the sustainment of the behavior change would be dependent on that level of feedback. Therefore, as soon as the current levels of feedback from leadership dropped, behavior would be again pulled in the direction that the bad system is encouraging. The system will prevail.   

Truth Two—A good system will not withstand poor leadership practices.

How leaders attempt to influence behavior within an organization will also significantly impact behaviors seen in the organization. Even in systems that have been purposefully designed to provide positive reinforcement for desired behaviors, poor leadership practices will have a detrimental effect on the workforce. Leadership practices such as only focusing on results, exception management, ignoring desired behaviors, downplaying accomplishments, treating workers as replaceable objects, and over-relying on punishment will not only have the direct effect of creating have-to performance levels, but it will also likely have an interaction effect of decreasing the positive reinforcing value produced by the system. To state it another way, poor leadership practices can take the fun out of winning, and once the fun is gone, what’s the point? The best designed systems and processes will lose their ability to encourage behavior if poor leadership practices are common. In these cases, poor leadership practices will prevail.  

The behaviors seen at all levels of the organization are a product of the system, the leadership practices, and the interactions between those two influences. Creating an organization that deliberately produces high and sustainable performance requires both a systems approach and an understanding of behavior science. One without the other will likely produce suboptimal results and whack-a-mole rework as the behaviors of the performers are being influenced in different directions. A good system makes work as easy as possible and provides a sense of winning through built-in feedback and positive reinforcement. Good leadership practices create or give meaning (reinforcing value) to consequences produced by systems, which can further optimize performance. They also encourage and recognize good work, performance improvement, and focus on purposefully developing people to their full potential. Organizations should invest heavily both in systems and leadership improvement. By addressing the two truths, organizations can create sustained performance improvement.

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.