By Dan Gregory and Kieran Flanagan
Globally, the business world is suffering from critical levels of disengagement and a decrease in staff performance. Gallup’s “Global Workplace Engagement Study” suggests that disengaged workers now make up at least 50 percent of the workforce—and that’s in countries that are doing reasonably well. The larger your organization is, the closer these figures are to your team’s engagement levels.
This lack of engagement and disillusionment in work crosses all categories. So, whether you’re on the executive team or manage people for a living, this is something you need to address.
This is compounded by the fact that we now have a more mobile and fluid workforce. With professional promiscuity on the rise, the days of the “company man for life” are long past.
So what do leaders need to do about this?
There’s a number of strategies organizations typically enlist to lift performance and engagement, most of which have to do with trying to change staff attitudes and behavior. However, as anyone who has worked in change management in the past decade can attest, change is hard. Making change stick is even more difficult.
We’d like to suggest a better strategy: Build your organizational structures, processes, systems and environments in such a way that preferred employee behaviors are a more natural outcome, rather than something that needs to be externally enforced.
In other words, instead of thinking in terms of attitudinal control, think in terms of behavior design.
In the long term, design beats discipline. Discipline and motivation were always meant to be short-term strategies. They provide a boost to performance rather than a systemic change. Over time, things like focus, discipline and enthusiasm have a tendency to wane if they’re not constantly reinforced.
In contrast, behavior design allows change to be more natural, more aligned with our natures and more permanent.
Traditional Versus Design Approaches
Let’s look at a simple but useful analogy to put this in perspective. Imagine you have a long hallway. At the end is one corridor that stretches to the left and another that goes to the right. Now imagine that your goal is to have employees turn left rather that right on a consistent basis.
Traditional management practices would suggest that we train our people for months, giving them a repeated combination of positive and negative reinforcements that train them to make only left-hand turns.
But this is useful only if we never again want them to be able to turn right.
We could use engaging visual communications, such as signs or arrows. We might make a game of the process or employ another staff member to move others in the desired direction.
We know from real-world experience that these strategies may or may not work. It depends on the behavior in question and the engagement levels of the team involved.
On the other hand, a design solution is about biasing behavior in a way that aligns with intrinsic human nature. For example, we might make the floor slope downward to the left and upward to the right. This aligns with our human bias toward taking the easier path.
We also could narrow the corridor to the right and open up the opening to the left to make the preferred path easier and more obvious. We could even use color or lighting to make one direction seem safe and inviting and the other threatening or even dangerous.
So, how can we design performance into our organizational culture and environment?
1. Make a list of preferred and undesired behaviors. It’s critical to understand both how we want our people to perform and also what behavior we want to discourage.
2. Align preferred behaviors with human nature. Stimulate ideal behavior by linking it to personal interest, demonstrating social acceptance and recognition. Also, mitigate the risks in desirable practices and amplify the expectations of discomfort in less desirable actions.
3. Examine the ease and friction points for each of these behaviors. One of the critical errors we make in designing the environments and processes in our organizations is that we expect compliance to be independent of ease. This is a critical failing in every area of business—from leadership to change management to sales.
Human beings have a natural bias toward self-interest and away from risk, and they will choose the path of least resistance. The key for leaders is to ensure that this path is the one we have chosen.
Dan Gregory and Kieran Flanagan are behavioral researchers and strategists who specialize in behaviors and belief systems that drive, motivate and influence people. They have won business awards for innovation, creativity and return on investment while working with organizations such as Coca-Cola, Unilever, News Corp and the United Nations in Singapore. Their new book, Selfish, Scared & Stupid (Published by Wiley), is available at www.selfishscaredandstupid.com.