Managing to Results Isn’t Enough; Focus on Behaviors

Why did it take deaths and public scrutiny to force General Motors to deal with a defective car part, and to compel the Department of Veterans Affairs to own up to falsified patient waiting lists?

Both organizations — like too many others — were driven by a near obsession with managing to results without considering the underlying behaviors.

An experience when I was consulting for a major corporation sheds light on the difficulty of a results-only approach. One of the company’s divisions ranked all of its facilities on key performance indicators. After a new vice president took over the division, the plant that had long been on the bottom reached the top in two months. The vice president spent a day at the facility to learn what employees were doing differently. At the end of the day, he asked the plant manager, “How did you get those results?” The manager replied, “I made them up.” When the vice president asked why, the manager acknowledged, “I was tired of being on the bottom.”

In a results-only culture, managers do whatever is necessary to achieve the desired outcomes. That can include doing things that are illegal or unsafe, such as at GM, or, as at the VA changing numbers to boost results while endangering the lives of veterans.

In these situations, employees made choices to avoid the consequences of failing to meet set results. Meanwhile, leaders put their organizations at risk because they managed only to outcomes instead of attending to the underlying employee behavior. 

Unfortunately, results often mangle the truth, putting blinders on the people who should be in charge. Managing to results alone is like managing by looking at last month’s newspaper. The old newspaper doesn’t tell you what is happening, only what has happened. Without knowing what people are doing today you can’t prevent the occurrence of widespread problems that often show up months or years later, and they can be extremely costly to correct, as GM and the VA have learned.

What to Do Instead

Leaders and managers need to understand the underlying behaviors involved in achieving results, good or bad. Then they must know how to effectively use positive reinforcement for the behaviors involved in directly improving performance.

Here are three ways to manage the behaviors that lead to results:

  1. Reinforce the right behaviors. A leader’s role is not to find fault or place blame, but to understand why people behave as they do and how current systems are inadvertently punishing good behavior or positively reinforcing wrong behaviors. If you think of positive reinforcement only as an attaboy, pat on the back or raise, you will devise systems that have the opposite impact. Instead, reinforce employees who speak up when there is a problem or offer solutions that save time and money. At GM, managers could be reinforced for good catches of defects. Behaviors should always reflect the mission, vision and values of the organization. 
  2. Encourage daily social reinforcement by supervisors and peers. The most important job for an executive or manager is to provide supervisors the training, systems and processes to make sure the right behaviors are reinforced at the right frequency. Everyone needs positive reinforcement to work effectively and improve. A steady paycheck doesn’t suffice. Ensure that every employee knows the required behaviors for his or her job and leaves work each day knowing how he or she did. Most employees have multiple daily accomplishments worth recognizing. Correct positive reinforcement ensures that results will be accomplished in the right way — and will exceed your expectations.
  3. Value improvements — including small ones. Improving behavior takes time and patience. Initially, there may be more mistakes or uncomfortable feelings. But change is easier to achieve when even a positive result is valued. Make change easy by reinforcing the smallest steps in the right direction. The smaller the improvement, the better, as reinforcing small changes increases the opportunity for reinforcement. When the reinforcement increases, the behavior increases, which increases the results. Reinforcing small improvements makes it more likely that all employees will receive some positive reinforcement, which dilutes, if not eliminates, resistance to change and to management requests and requirements.

Managing to results may appear to be a quick path to success, but it will never produce a viable organization. Managers will simply do whatever is necessary, including altering numbers, to beef up results. On the other hand, companies that manage the behavior that leads to results will get the results they need.

For more on the topic, read “Lessons From the VA and General Motors.”