Engineering employee behaviour in the workplace (Part 1)

Written by
Changeboard Team

23 Feb 2013

23 Feb 2013 • by Changeboard Team

Employee attitude vs employee behaviour

The economic crisis has sharpened our minds and there is no longer a debate over whether we must manage individual and organisational performance – that is now a given. It also seems to be agreed that we need to attend to three dimensions of performance:

1. Results – delivery of quality outputs at the lowest possible cost – results rule.

2. How things are done – ‘results at any cost i.e., no matter how achieved’ is not acceptable.

  •  The extent to which employees display the most appropriate competencies and complete the tasks in the most appropriate way are significantly important.
  • With over two thirds of employees in our workforces stating that they will seek new employment when the economy recovers, how managers lead and manage them has to be of major concern.

3. Growth – if our employees do not develop to their fullest individual potential, our organisations will not possess the agility to survive in the coming years.

Don't take employee loyalty for granted

However, while the demands on managers to influence the performance and development of their staff are increasing, so too are the extraneous forces that also exert influence over staff behaviour. And many of those are working against us:

  • No longer can we expect someone to do something merely because they were told to. There is no longer automatic respect for authority and rules.
  • No longer can we take loyalty for granted. People do not merely live to work.
  • No longer can we assume that episodic exhortation will have any substantial impact.
  • No longer can we coerce or even threaten people – well, only once.
  • Individuals now send and receive tens, if not hundreds, of emails or text messages each day and can access people and information 24/7 worldwide. No longer is the boss the primary influencer or even source of information.

While it seems natural to assume that employees’ beliefs and attitudes are precursors to their behaviour, practical experience and numerous studies have demonstrated that the linkage is highly complex. For example, many people have attitudes and beliefs such as, ‘employees should strive to optimise their individual performance’ yet do not demonstrate that through their own behaviour, even if they know how to.

Disconnect between attitudes and behaviour

Exhortation and training often fail to achieve the desired behaviour changes even when the basic attitudes and beliefs are consistent with the desired behaviour. There are several factors that contribute to this disconnect between attitudes and behaviour. Each of the following influence whether or not a person engages in any new behaviour, irrespective or even despite their attitudes towards that behaviour:

1. Lack of a trigger

When an opportunity or need to behave in the new way arises, the individual might not consciously recognise it.

2. Lack of knowledge or ability

Inconsistency between a person’s expressed attitudes and their behaviour might be partially attributable to a lack of understanding of what to do or a lack of understanding of the implications of their actions. While information and education alone have little or no motivational effect on behaviour, they are still critical enablers.

3. Perceived barriers/consequences

Perceived barriers and constraints, whether real or not, set limits on the behavioural impact of a person’s attitudes. The higher the barriers, including expense, inconvenience, work-based, personal, lack of confidence and technical difficulties, the less effect attitudes will have on a person’s behaviour.

4. Perceived reinforcement/benefits

While there may be benefits associated with a desired behaviour change, they might be longer term (and thus, less impactful) or they may be accrued by a wider audience than the individual themselves.

Change behaviour directly

So, it is generally more cost effective to try to change behaviour directly than try to do so via a change in attitudes across a larger population. In fact, attitudes are just as likely to be consequences of repeated behaviour as they are to be causes of behaviours. Behaviours, when repeated, become habits and we feel safe with our habits. These in turn come to describe our attitudes and characterise our collective culture.

Is it depressing that changing behaviour is critically important yet difficult to achieve? Not at all. At the same time that socio-economic changes are creating problems, technology is also enabling new solutions to behavioural engineering. We merely need to spot them, understand them and deploy them to advantage.

Power of technology to influence behaviour

Technology can now be used as a strategic tool for engineering and managing behaviour. If you do not believe that, try to get the remote control off your partner as they start to watch their favourite TV programme; try to get the game console handset off your teenager; just look at all the people around you speaking on mobile phones as they go about their normal day-to-day activity – technology is continuously and dramatically changing the way we act and our attitudes.

What about people with Blackberrys who check work things into the night and over the weekend yet used to complain bitterly about working late. Behavioural engineering (BE) is not merely a possibility; it is now ingrained in our everyday activities and technology vendors are using it to change the way we think and act.

In the HR context, BE is the process by means of which we use technology to influence, in a planned and hopefully beneficial way, the behaviour of those who come into contact with it. BE or behaviour modification approaches have long been used in the treatment of psychological disorders, management of pupil truancy and in the management of risk from a safety perspective. It is now being used to enhance the impact of contemporary technology in day-to -day processes such as performance management, talent management and development management to name but three.

Functional behavioural assessments

The process of understanding behaviour in context is called functional behavioural assessment. Therefore, a functional behavioural assessment is needed before commencing BE. One of the simplest yet effective methods of functional behavioural assessment is called the ‘ABC’ approach, where observations are made on Antecedents, Behaviours and Consequences. In other words, ‘what comes directly before the behaviour?’, ‘what does the behaviour look like?’ and ‘what comes directly after the behaviour (to reinforce it or stop it)?

Once enough observations are made, the data is analysed and patterns are identified. If there are consistent antecedents and/or benefits/consequences, then an intervention can target them in order to increase or decrease the target behaviour. Strategic BE uses a combination of Applied Behaviour Analysis (including Observational and Social Learning) and Process & Technology Engineering.

1. Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) – studying the actual and desired behaviours; which antecedents typically trigger them; which rewards and consequences arise, and then identifying process and technology elements that can be modified to enhance the impact (i.e., produce the greatest possible desired behaviour change).

2. Observational Learning – making contextually sensitive observations of what happens when certain stimuli or triggers are applied, rewards/reinforcements are delivered or punishments/deprivations are applied.

3. Social Learning – developing and testing hypotheses about the impact of peer and other ‘social’ interactions.

4. Process & Technology Engineering (the ‘Applied’ element of ABA – designing integrated processes (that seize on BE power of technology) and technology (that directly drives, supports and enhances the desired processes and behaviours).

Part two

In part one of this article above, we looked at why it is important to be able to influence (or engineer) behaviour and what causes and may inhibit the effectiveness of attempts. We also looked at the growing role that technology plays and how to analyse situations in preparation for implementing a behavioural engineering strategy. In part two, we will look at the practical side – making it happen.