Ten Expert Practices for Optimizing Team Performance

WomenAdvancing Council

Visionary leaders are agents of change. Highly observant and great at reading situations, these managers know how to motivate teams to achieve new goals in the pursuit of excellence.

I spoke with an expert consultant on organizational behavior, Gretchen Ramirez, Ph.D., to find out how leaders optimize team behavior. She believes anyone can enhance their leadership ability simply by knowing how to improve, modify or eliminate behavior in others.

First, understand that there are two opportunities to impact behavior: antecedents and consequences.

Antecedents: Improve the quality of team performance by setting expectations before action is taken. Give clear instructions even if it seems to make the task more complicated; clarity about process ensures team members are aligned and the goal is achieved.

Consequences: Feedback shapes, changes or reinforces the actions of a team after the task is completed. Whether positive, neutral or negative, consequences are an effective tool of leadership.  Avoid “no-consequence,” which leaves team members unclear if their actions are effective or not.

Dr. Ramirez shared 10 leadership strategies to help you sharpen your organizational effectiveness and become an agent of change:

  1. Reinforcing through feedback is essential for permanent change. Antecedents provoke behavior but do not maintain it. Instructions are motivating, but consequences determine if that behavior will become established. Reinforcing after a task is completed successfully will go a long way to effect change we want to be permanent.
  1. The best style of positive reinforcement is not one-size-fits-all. Some people prefer receiving compliments publicly and others prefer a written note or a private conversation. Optimally, consequences should be customized to the person.
  1. To establish a behavior, reinforce frequently; to maintain a behavior reinforce intermittently and unexpectedly. Once a behavior is established, you do not need to reinforce constantly. In fact, your reinforcement will lose value if you overuse it. Reinforce frequently at the start of a new task or situation and reinforce sporadically to maintain the highest level of performance.
  1. Don’t name-drop to get a behavior done. It diminishes your leadership.
  1. Avoiding the “threat” of a bad situation is a terrible motivator. If your team works feverishly at the end of each fiscal period to avoid disappointing the board, negative reinforcement encourages the team’s behavior and last-minute rushing will become the norm. Threats are ineffective; don’t encourage higher performance as a means to avoid an unwanted consequence.
  1. Be aware that negative consequences are varied and subtle. Negative consequences in the workplace can be as simple as not introducing a visitor to a person that expects it, not giving warranted credit or speaking before another has finished. As in positive consequences, consider how the person receiving your feedback could perceive it.
  1. Neutral consequences can decrease and eventually eliminate the behavior. Not reinforcing behavior has the same effect over time as a negative consequence. A person that goes the extra mile will soon reduce performance if their effort is not noticed. Withhold positive reinforcement and you risk unintentionally eliminating the good behavior.
  1. Consequences should be simple and immediately follow the behavior. To change behavior, don’t wait: Offer feedback soon after you see indications of the new behavior you want to instill -- a quick response is more effective in changing behavior than a positive consequence at the end of the month or the end of the year. This explains why compensation is important (it gets the person on the team) but not long-lasting (after a while, the raise received will lose the impact of motivating daily behavior).
  1. Negative feedback must stand alone. If you are trying to establish or change a behavior, never pair your feedback with “that was good, but next time…” If you need to address a less than positive aspect, offer criticism separate from encouragement.
  1. Get to know the people that work with you, in any capacity. Empathy for your coworkers creates a more human and productive working environment. Learn what feedback is reinforcing (and not reinforcing) to each individual on your team.

Now that you understand how to optimize the behavior of your team, put it into practice.   And remember: Don’t be the only reinforcer on the team; become a promoter of reinforcement among others. The good energy will positively impact the workplace climate while making the team stronger and more successful.

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