Want to Change Employee Behavior? What Not to Do

April 12, 2021

I read “The One System That Changes Employee Behavior.” Interesting but disconnected from good old reality. I assume that the breezy recommendations comprise the one system a manager with an MBA and a back ground in the disconnected world of high school science club decision making are perfect for thumbtypers.

Wrong. Behavior change in a commercial enterprise is induced by hooking compensation (tangible or intangible) to specific outcomes. Another way to think about change is to think about this statement, “Do this and you get a raise and a promotion.”

Let’s look at the four recommendations that comprise the “one system that changes employee behavior.” Here are what I call “thumbtyper” suggestions. My observations appear in italics after these bullets of high powered wisdom:

1. Define corporate values.

Okay, that’s something for a first year business class. Get those values down to a snappy phrase like “Do no evil.” One can also look to outfits like Credit Suisse. That outfit’s executives are in a tizzy because of its financial sinkhole related to the ethical paragons at Archegos. To understand corporate values, talk to the former McKinsey wizards who engineered success at a large pharmaceutical firm.

2. Define pinpointed behaviors aligned with values.

Many interesting examples of this alignment thing can be located. Examples include the fascinating tale of a Google attorney who was philandering to the Big Zuck who wanted to eat meat of animals he killed. Did he wear a PETA cap whist satisfying his culinary goals? Alignment of privacy and Facebook revenue are almost as interesting. I do like the word “pinpointed”, however. Precision is required for advertisers to buy click as well as for inducing pregnancy and killing a plump French bulldog tied to a door knob on University Avenue. As you ponder the canine metaphor, define value for attendees at a virtual venture funded entrepreneur-to-be conference.

3. Change your behaviors.

Ho, ho, ho. Try that with this senior manager at a high tech firm in the cradle of ethical behavior. The behavior requiring change is described in “Prostitute Convicted in Google Exec’s Overdose Death Charged.” Yep, intervention works great. On the other hand, step back and watch how behaviors evolve once a secret is exposed. Current examples fall readily to hand; for example, explanations about data loss from social media outfits.

4. Facilitate change in others.

This is an interesting idea. Let’s take the example of Uber. Travis Kalanick, who needed to grow up, did indeed alter others. Some of his methods are documented in the BBC article “Uber: The Scandals That Drove Travis Kalanick Out.” A more mundane example may lurk in one’s own mind. How often did someone tell you, gentle reader, do your homework? Works everytime for those under the age of 13, doesn’t it?

My thought is that these ideas do not comprise a system.

What works is incentives. Pay for specific actions. When the action is delivered in a satisfactory way, provide more payoffs. Magic. The somewhat shallow “one system” ain’t gonna do it. Cash is more reliable a motivator.

Stephen E Arnold, April 12, 2021


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