As I've looked into organizations that are our clients, as well as some where I have colleagues or professional friends, it has become clear to me that the pace of business growth and change these days often causes leaders to "save time" in ways that can be counter-productive. Supposedly saving time, or moving too fast, leaders and managers often skip over opportunities to clearly specify expectations, provide positive or corrective feedback to keep people on track, or to recognize successful performance or milestones toward important goals. These are among the most valuable and impactful things that a manager or organizational leader can do. And yet, we often don't take the relatively small amount of time required to do them well.
We know very well from research on employee engagement and from behavior science that when people have clear expectations they perform better. It's important to remember, too, that "expectations" are only effective if the people for whom they are intended actually hear, understand, and can behave accordingly. When those whom we manage or lead don't "get" what we expect them to do and produce, we need to look at and revise our methods for setting and refining expectations, NOT blame the performers. If there is one thing we've learned from the science of behavior it's that "the organism is always right." That is, people behave lawfully, and it is our responsibility as leaders and managers to communicate expectations until "communication has occurred" – until we can see that the message has gotten through by watching their behavior. Unfortunately, many leaders and managers are moving so quickly that they fail to attend to this aspect of their roles. Our people are not mind-readers, and they might not even understand what we say if we don't slow down to be sure they have heard it. Box 1 (Expectations and Feedback) is #1 for a reason – it represents the greatest point of leverage in the system.
Similarly, in our hurry we often fail to provide effective feedback and meaningful recognition or rewards to people when they DO "get it" and demonstrate that they are moving in the right direction. Our old friend and colleague, Aubrey Daniels , has written many books on this topic alone. He call it "the astonishing power of positive reinforcement." If there is a single most powerful finding from decades of behavior science it is that behavior is governed by its consequences. Engagement and discretionary effort ONLY happen when leaders and managers effectively set expectations and provide recognition and positive feedback when people do things right, or take steps toward doing things right. This is literally a "law of behavior" and cannot be ignored, if you want to be successful.
If you see employees in your organization who are stressed, confused, and unhappy on the job, then you need to communicate and verify clear expectations, and provide frequent confirming feedback and positive recognition or consequences for doing the right thing.
Recognize that you have to pause a little bit to do these things right. Everything we know from research and practice, however, suggests that by adopting these leadership and management practices, we will accelerate positive change and results in our organizations.
Here's a simple but powerful self-improvement tactic for all managers and leaders reading this blog: Try keeping a tally on a piece of paper or a cell phone app of the number of times each day you say or do something POSITIVE when you see someone doing the right thing. Also count when you say or do something CORRECTIVE or NEGATIVE. Compare the counts of positives and negatives each day. Your goal is to have a 5:1 ratio.
If you're like me, you'll almost certainly start out with the discovery that your ratio of positives-to-negatives is less than 1:1. I have sometimes counted my own behavior in times of stress to discover that I was finding employees and colleagues being "wrong" 5 or more times for every once I found them being "right". That's exactly the opposite of what research says that ratio should be. What I have learned, and what I think you also will learn by doing this, is that just paying attention and LOOKING FOR and recognizing employee behavior that is in the right direction, you will be able to improve both the performance and the engagement of people whom you manage and lead.
Try to find and point out 5 times more good stuff than bad stuff. It turns out to be easy if you look for it. By slowing down just a little bit to "find the employee being good," you will likely accelerate the pace of improvement in your organization and accelerate business results.