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Engineering behaviour in the workplace (Part Two)

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What is behavioural engineering and how does this relate to performance management in the workplace?

Behavioural engineering applied

In part one, we looked at why it is important to be able to influence behaviour and what causes and may inhibit the effectiveness of attempts. In part two, we look at the practical side – making it happen.

In our race to ‘simplify’ (during the time – early 50s to the late 90s – when technology was not available to assist), many performance management processes were actually ‘trivialised’. 21st century technology now enables us to do things correctly and individuals are readily accepting, even welcoming, of more complex or richer tools – so long as they add value. Behavioural Engineering (BE) thinking enables us to design processes that seize on these new technologies i.e., to enable or to drive desired behaviours. For example:

• We can now use global secure access to enable ‘Spider Planning’ (where pairs of individuals, irrespective of formal reporting relationships, agree specific performance contracts that integrate with and align with the web of other agreements around them into a plan that will achieve the overall goal) and so drive the behaviour of one-to-one contracting of individual contributions and the collaboration that this leads to.

• We can now use real-time communications and remote access to enable collaborative working with shared virtual whiteboards and project plans. Individuals, irrespective of level, location etc can participate in the creation of ideas, turn them into draft plans, review their practicality and commercial viability and then develop action plans to effect them.

• We can now use real-time data analysis to address data quality by detecting potentially low quality assessments at source. For example, on entry, data is subjected to strict validation rules prior to acceptance and the quality of that data is evaluated, and real-time feedback is presented back to the submitter to inform them that it could potentially be enhanced (i.e., we influence the thinking and then assessment behaviour of the user at the time that the behaviour is displayed).

• We can now use technology to enable individuals to determine and specify clear personal goals, to identify pragmatic small next steps and then to track progress as part of a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy programme.

BE as an enabler

BE thinking enables us to design technology that triggers behaviour, enables behaviour, reinforces behaviour, discourages behaviour, etc:

• We can now use data analytics to send email, SMS and on-screen alerts to trigger behaviour.

• We can now use global access and security layers to drive escalation procedures that increase compliance.

• We can now use dashboards, score-cards etc to trigger competitive activity and drive performance enhancement.

• We can now use empirical data to identify screen designs to optimise data quality, user repeat access and process compliance.

• We can use data analysis, including predictive analytics, to identify behaviours that lead to enhanced performance etc and then use these results to modify individual user interfaces to encourage those behaviours.

Key elements of behavioural engineering

Each BE project has a number of key elements:

• Definition of the current and desired behaviours

• Definition of the characteristics of the target individuals; who’s behaviour we need to change

• Definition of the appropriate contexts

• Observation and analysis of behaviour – to identify antecedents and responses to the current and the desired behaviours

• Development of behavioural change hypotheses

• Design of new behavioural triggers

• Design of new behavioural reinforcers

• Design of new behavioural consequences

• Development and testing of the solution

Designing behavioural engineering technology

BE designs take into account many factors including but not limited to:

1. Interfaces – ease of access, mental demands (including concentration, emotional impact, etc), physical demands (including eye movement, mouse clicks, mouse movement, etc), security (real and “felt”) etc.

2. Context – timing, environment etc.

3. Communication\triggering methods – media, frequency and timing of email, SMS, voice, alerts etc.

4. Access – at work, at home, secure/open etc.

5. WIIIFM – ‘what’s in it for me?’ – the reinforcement for the user who demonstrates the desired behaviours; the appropriate consequence for the user who doesn’t.

It is in the ‘design’ elements that a detailed understanding of the psychology of human behaviour is critical. A detailed understanding of the short and long term results of triggers, reinforcement (net positive outcomes/experiences) and consequences (net negative outcomes/experiences) is critical. All too often new processes and systems are designed taking into account only selected triggers, responses or consequences – e.g. ‘the need for simplicity’.


For example, a user initially likes a simple system that they have been told to use. Initially, the trigger ‘told to use’ may be effective and ‘simple to use’ offers a better than expected return on usage so the user provides a positive response to questions such as, ‘rate your satisfaction with the system.’  If, however, the system fails to produce any added-value, the user may not re-access it. They will then need to be ‘told’ repeatedly, which over time becomes annoying. Or, they re-access it of their own volition but the lack of added value eventually outweighs the pleasure derived from ‘simplicity’. Bottom line, the system eventually fails to produce the expected return on investment. ‘Simplification’ has evolved to ‘trivialisation’.

Another example system requires a user to click on a series of left-hand menu links in order to check CV details such as ‘languages’, ‘internal work history’, ‘training courses’, etc which will be considered during a later Talent Review. After completing the first few, the user is likely to get ‘tired’ of the repeated need to click the left menus and will start making assumptions about the data accuracy. Bottom line, the data held against the first few entries is likely to end up reasonably complete and accurate. Data towards the end could be incomplete and inaccurate. A scrollable screen showing all data, through which the user can quickly scan, is likely to produce a better result.

What makes people tick?

The recent work on employee engagement and now on behavioural engineering will lead us into a new era of interest in ‘what makes people tick’. However, we have lost sight of important understanding of human behaviour that was developed in the early to mid 1900s. We need to dust off our books on the work of such luminaries as Drucker, Taylor, Herzberg and Maslow and, more recently, Blanchard et al. Despite the quite different contexts in which their work was done, it can still be used to understand and explain the speed and passion with which new technologies such as notebooks, mobile phones, iPods, MP3 players, games consoles etc have been adopted.

It can also be used to design new BE methodologies. Systems can be designed such that:

•  Desired behaviours (such as accessing the system, entering correct and complete data, maintaining records, interacting with others) are continuously reinforced.

• Undesirable behaviours (such as providing poor quality assessments on others) are inhibited or (such as failing to submit an annual performance plan) have consequences.

Even then, great care has to be taken when designing the BE components as consequences and rewards have different effects if they are repeated or sustained as indicated in the table below.

The ultimate potential for Behavioural Engineering in the field of web-based HR applications is unknown but it is clearly extremely significant.

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