Why We Should Say the B Word at Work


Jess Graham, M.S.

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Imagine a work environment where everyone knew what they were supposed to be working on, knew when they did a good job, and knew how to make their boss happy. Sound too good to be true? If we all started using one little B word at work – behavior – it could be a reality.

The word behavior has traditionally been associated with negative consequences, which is why it’s so underutilized. Employees often get written up for their ‘behavior’, we analyze behavioral causes of incidents etc., but it doesn’t have to be this way. If we were to break the stigma and start talking about behavior at work, or even using behavioral descriptors in our everyday interactions, we could unleash performance that we previously thought impossible. And it’s easier to do than you might imagine.

Behavior is defined simply as a specific, observable action – anything we say and do. Behavioral science tells us there are two ways to influence what people do: adjusting the antecedents (triggers or cues for behaviors), and the consequences (which come after behavior and influence future performance levels). Let’s look at some ways to use behavioral language for each.

Define expectations in behavioral terms.
If you’ve ever had a manager who told you to go the extra mile, put the client first, or be more like an alligator (true story!), you’ve seen ineffective antecedents. Most workplace cultures show a similar lack of clarity in expectation setting. To be effective, we need to keep clarifying until tasks, projects and directives are behaviorally defined.

Of course it’s fine for leaders to set a general direction for their staff, but that direction needs to be backed up with descriptions of specific actions that contribute to the result they want to see. An easy way to start is to make statements such as:

  • What that would look like is… (define behavior)
  • The best way for you to contribute to this outcome is… (define behavior)
  • Can you commit to doing (x behavior) by our next meeting in two weeks?

It’s not just about leader behavior, either. Everyone benefits from using behavioral language and specificity! For example, If the expectations given by your manager or colleague don’t leave you with a feeling of 100% confidence that you know exactly what to do next, help them tease it out by saying things like:

  • What specifically can I do to help us reach this goal?
  • Is there anything in particular you’d like to see?
  • What behaviors are needed for us to be successful?
  • I’m thinking my next three actions will be (describe behaviors xyz)… Is that what you had in mind?

Describe behavior when giving feedback and recognition.

Once expectations are defined clearly, we can turn our efforts to shaping and reinforcing the behaviors we’re looking for. Behavioral science has shown us that following up on behaviors after they happen has actually been proven to be MORE effective than anything we do to prompt behavior.

Feedback and reinforcement are two of the most common and effective ways to provide consequences to influence behavior, and we can capitalize on these activities by simply describing behavior. By specifying what behavior should be done differently, or what behavior is being recognized, we’re making a stronger connection for the employee between their actions and the impact. This actually makes future positive performance more likely – a very powerful tool! Even easy phrases like these are highly valuable:

  • I noticed that you… (describe behavior)
  • I really appreciate the way that you… (describe behavior)
  • When you (describe behavior), it resulted in (impact to you/the results/the business)

By making a simple adjustment in the way we talk about behavior, we can make the most of our directives, feedback and reinforcement to have a much greater effect. As a bonus, by using objective descriptions of behavior, we take emotion and opinion out of the interaction. This minimizes the room for interpretation, and therefore room for mistakes and re-work, and makes us better at handling tough or uncomfortable situations. It enables better relationships between leaders and their staff, and promotes a culture of efficiency and trust.

How do you utilize behavior at work?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Suggested Reading:

Cooper, J.O, Heron, T.E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Pearson Education International.

Daniels, A.C., & Daniels, J.E. (2006). Performance Management: Changing Behavior that Drives Organizational Effectiveness. Performance Management Publications.

Jess Graham, M.S., is an experienced business person, and formally trained behavior analyst who has been creating results in business through behavioral science for 15 years. She believes everyone deserves to work for, and be served by, businesses that are successful and healthy, and is especially passionate about helping others learn the behavioral technology to make this happen.

Jess has dedicated her career to making a positive impact through influencing workplace culture, leadership development, and service excellence, to affect business results and make a difference in the quality of the lives of employees and their clients. Through applying the science of behavior and continuous improvement, she has contributed to the success of change strategies in a wide range of businesses, including manufacturing, mental health, education and customer service settings. In coaching leaders at all levels, and sharing the science of behavior with thousands of individuals, she has loved seeing firsthand the positive effects of implementing behavior-based strategies in any type of workplace.

She earned her Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Western Michigan University, and Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis from Florida State University. After 4 years of living and consulting abroad in Australia, Jess brought her skills and experience back to the corporate sector in the US and is currently enjoying an Organizational Development role in a Fortune Global 100 company.

1 Comment on "Why We Should Say the B Word at Work"

  1. Important conversational topic that can influence every interpersonal interaction – great insights, Jess.

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