By Daniel B. Sundberg, PhD
bSci21 Contributing Writer
Do you remember the jobs that you used to get as a kid? Mowing the lawn, raking leaves, shoveling snow, or working a paper route. When you think of these jobs, what one thing do they all have in common? Let me give you a hint, when you had to go out and rake the leaves, were you told to rake for 2 hours, or were you told to rake until you had cleared up the whole yard? Fair assumption to say it was the latter. Most of the job we worked as kids had a focus on results over time. This simple practice is something that is often lost in the modern workplace, as we fall into the standard “8 – 5” pattern.
As behavior analysts we pride ourselves on our ability to focus in on measurable and observable behaviors in order to create meaningful impact. This focus on behavior helps us to solve some really tough problems.
When we apply this laser focus on behavior to employees within organizations, this quickly creates more work for leaders than most companies can keep up with. Employees are expected to engage in thousands of important behaviors, and no leader has the time to measure and reinforce all of them. Most people who run into this issue have a big “ah-ha” moment when they shift their focus from behaviors to results.
Tom Glibert, a classic performance improvement thinker, went so far as to say it was a trap to focus on behaviors, rather than the results of those behaviors. He suggested this leads to an overly narrow focus and less effective performance improvement. For example, one organization created task analyses with step-by-step breakdowns of the behaviors employees needed to engage in, and a measurement system leaders used to ensure the behaviors were happening. The only trouble was, there were literally dozens of these task analyses, which made monitoring and reinforcing performance overwhelming and ineffective for leaders.
The organization made the decision to switch to monitoring results – the accomplishments of employees – rather than the individual behaviors. As a result, leaders were able to more effectively manage their people, employee performance improved, and the individual employees reported having more freedom in their work.
Why should we focus on results rather than behavior?
Helps us avoid micromanaging, and frees up leadership time. Measuring and reinforcing critical results is much less time intensive than focusing on the many behaviors required to reach those results.
Creates clear expectations for employees. A focus on results indicates to employees why they are doing what they are doing by revealing the outcome of their work from the start.
Allows for greater autonomy and flexibility for employees. Giving employees the freedom of “how” to accomplish the results may lead to more efficient work processes, and greater job expansion.
Results ultimately drive the company. Focusing on behaviors without results means your people may be wasting their energies on the wrong things. Focusing on results makes it easier to stay on the right path, without getting carried away in the details of behavior.
Many leading companies are realizing the importance of results in organizational performance. Google has now become famous for their emphasis on results with their “Objectives and Key Results” (OKR) leadership system. Many other companies are beginning to adopt what’s known as a “Results Only Work Environment” (ROWE). All of these organizations are reporting impressive performance outcomes.
And the benefits of such a system don’t just stop at performance improvement. One study examined the effects of a Results Only Work Environment on the health and wellness of participants. They found that on average people in a ROWE system got 1 hour more sleep per night (who couldn’t use that??).
But, as you are no doubt thinking, we can’t always focus solely on results. So when do you want to focus on behavior? Aubrey Daniels suggests the following situations:
- When performers are new to the task (they don’t know how to get the results!)
- When you can get the right results the wrong way (e.g. golf, ethics, safety)
- When there is a big lag between behaviors and results (e.g. implementing a behavior plan)
And when you decide to focus more on results, how do you select them? Results should be:
- Important to success of the organization, and the individual
- Aligned with the goals of the organization, other employees, and the customer
- Clear in their dimensions, constraints, and criteria
If you take the advice of Gilbert, Google, and other big performance thinkers to heart, consider how you as a leader can begin to lead with a focus on results.
Daniel B. Sundberg, PhD, is a behavior analyst dedicated to creating meaningful change for individuals and organizations using the science of human behavior. Dan has worked in a variety of organizations, including non-profits. Additionally, Dan spent two years as a university lecturer, teaching undergraduate students how to improve the workplace with behavior analysis
Dan earned his B.A. in Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, M.S. in Organizational Behavior Management from Florida Institute of Technology, and Ph. D. in Industrial/ Organizational Behavior Management from Western Michigan University. During this time, some of the best thinkers in behavior analysis and OBM mentored Dr. Sundberg as an academician and business professional.
Dan is currently Regional Manager of Consulting Services at ABA Technologies, where he helps to develop and deliver OBM consulting services. Dan is also a guest reviewer for the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and in his spare time he creates behavior-based products that allow people to manage their time and accomplish their goals. He also has a special interest in building effective work practices and cultures for start-up companies, and increasing the positive effects of organizations working towards an environmentally sustainable future. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.