Management Matters: Driving Behavior

What type of consequence is the most powerful and most likely to trigger action and maintain a behavior?


Much has been written and taught about leadership. I read somewhere once that on Amazon, there are in excess of 480,000 books today that have to do with leadership, and/ or changing human behavior. If you ask 30 leadership development experts how to best achieve desired behaviors and results, you get 31 different answers. Not only are we confused, but despite our exhaustive efforts to drive organizational culture and employee behavior to desired result, we many times fall short of our goal.

Many of us as leaders desire to change the organization’s culture for the better. We define our organization’s mission/vision statements, and we are able to visualize clearly in our mind’s eye what the outcome of these mission/vision statements should be. But when it comes to identifying a road map to take us there, our internal GPS loses satellite connection!

Without a map to get us to the destination, we might end up anywhere. We know we wish to change undesired behaviors to desired behaviors, resulting in a cultural shift. This of course, as we all know, is a process and not an event, and certainly one that can seem so overwhelming and daunting, we paralyze our efforts just thinking about it. My focus then is to present you some simple down and dirty basic concepts for leading others into desired behavioral changes that work.

Learn by example

Let’s learn by example. Identify the behavior of your employees that you wish to change. For our purposes here we will identify our goal as enhancing our safety culture, and more specifically, changing our employee’s behavior so they will wear PPE (personal protective equipment) while performing maintenance tasks and while on the ramp, as defined by company policy.

It is imperative for us to understand two basic concepts: The current culture, whether safe or unsafe, has been established by employee patterns of behavior, in other words, what we say and what we do. These patterns of behavior, whether they occur by intent or by accident, and whether they occur by people or by systems, create our culture over time. The list of stimuli that trigger action or behavior is virtually unending, but consider some of the more common: deadlines and time pressure, regulations, training or lack thereof, “norms” or accepted practices whether safe or unsafe, complacency, feedback, “that’s the way we have always done it,” rumors …. the list goes on and on.

The second critical understanding is that consequences for current or past behavior have the strongest influence on future behavior. This is so important to grasp and where we will focus. A basic analysis of consequences supports that the consequence may be positive or negative, immediate or future, and certain or uncertain.

Positive, immediate, and certain

So let’s ask ourselves what type of consequence is the most powerful and most likely to trigger action and best maintain a behavior? Without a doubt it is those consequences which are positive, immediate, and certain. The least powerful consequences and least likely to trigger action and maintain a behavior obviously are those at the opposite end of the spectrum, those being negative, in the future, and uncertain. OK, you say, great concepts, but what do I do with them?

Let’s add some practicality and apply them to aviation operations in the maintenance shop, on the FBO ramp, or within corporate flight departments. We determined earlier our goal of enhancing our safety culture, and more specifically, changing our employee’s behavior so they will wear PPE while performing maintenance tasks and while on the ramp, as defined by company policy. Begin by asking the question, why would anyone work unsafely by not wearing PPE?

Wearing or not wearing PPE

Let’s consider the likely stimuli or factors that trigger the behavior of wearing or not wearing safety equipment as being: time demands, company policy, the boss desiring higher output levels, and feedback. Ask, and define, what are the consequences of not wearing PPE? A likely consequence is that the employee may get hurt. The questions then follow: is the consequence of getting hurt positive or negative? Is the consequence immediate or in the future? Is the consequence certain or uncertain?

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