The Should vs. Is Leadership Error

This is the first in a new blog series from Bryan Shelton. Check in on the first Tuesday of every month for new blogs in the series.

Our brains are designed to learn and adapt quickly to our environments.  Our behaviors adjust swiftly to the world around us based on our learning histories and what we experience as we behave.  If our behaviors produce desirable outcomes, we repeat those behaviors in similar situations. The opposite is also true; if our behaviors create undesirable consequences, we adjust next time.  This is how people learn and adapt their behavior patterns.

The Should vs Is error is made when leaders disconnect the behaviors of others from the environment or discuss what employees “should be” doing instead of what is actually going on in the organization.  Statements like: “Our employees should be following the rules,” “Employees should do the job the right way,” or “Employees should find their job meaningful and exciting” are all examples of making a should error.  This error assumes that the organization is designed to encourage all the behaviors needed to make it successful by default, which is rarely the case.  By disconnecting the organizational systems and processes from people’s performance, leaders typically end up placing blame on the performer for less-than-optimal performance instead of looking for the causal factors in the environment. 

Instead of focusing on what should be happening in organizations, leaders should examine employee performance as a product of the organization’s systems, processes, design of work, and leadership practices to see what is influencing behavior.  Oftentimes, how the organization operates actively provides undesirable consequences for behaviors the organization needs to be successful while encouraging undesirable behaviors by providing strong, positive consequences.   By examining the causal factors in the environment that are actively influencing performance, leaders can redesign the organization to promote desired behaviors.

Being able to identify the environmental factors influencing behavior, and then making deliberate changes to create a world that encourages high performance is a skill that leaders must develop.    Examining how the organizational design is actively influencing behavior is critical for performance improvement.  What should be happening or influencing performance is irrelevant: look for what is influencing behavior.  The open and honest discussion about organizational systems, processes, work, and leadership practices will lead to more effective changes and company 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.