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When managing to results turns deadly

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While the ignition problems at General Motors and the falsified waiting lists at Veterans Affairs may not seem comparable, there is one distinct parallel. In both cases, leaders were managing to results.

It’s hard to believe that in today’s business environment, many organizations are still employing practices that not only don’t work but can also harm people. In these organizations, it’s typical for leaders to set the numbers and then monitor results to determine if people are reaching them. What they fail to understand is that results alone are not enough.

Managing by results is similar to driving in a big city by looking only in the rear view mirror: It doesn’t tell you what lies ahead. Problems often show up months or years later, when they are extremely costly to correct, as was true in the case of both GM and the VA

Employees and managers can cheat to get results. They can do things that are illegal or unsafe, as with GM. And, in the case of the VA, they can alter numbers to make results look better. In both of these examples, the impact of this way of managing proved deadly.

My advice to the VA, GM and any organization that still employs this approach: Learn about behavior.

It is not only imperative that managers be knowledgeable about the behavior that goes into achieving results, good or bad. They must also constantly manage that behavior by giving positive reinforcement for the activities that actually improve overall performance. New reports that the VA for years has punished staff members who have objected to falsified patient-appointment schedules and other misdeeds are particularly disturbing.

Here are three steps to take in breaking old patterns of managing to results and instead managing the behavior that leads to results:

  1. Change rather than blame. People do what they do because the behavior is being reinforced or was reinforced in the past. The role of leaders is not to find fault or place the blame, but to figure out why people behave the way they do. Then they need to stop reinforcing activities that are not effective and instead reinforce those that are — promptly and constantly. Managing for positive performance does not mean ignoring poor performance or setting unrealistic goals for a workplace utopia. If one manages the right behaviors that lead to the desired results, the results will be positive.
  2. Reinforce positive reinforcement. Everyone needs positive reinforcement to work effectively and improve. A steady paycheck isn’t sufficient. If a manager doesn’t respond when an employee does something right, the likely reaction is, “Nobody cares what I do around here.” The employee may then either stop doing what he or she is doing (and what the manager wants done) or start doing something else, which could be much less desirable from management’s point of view.
  3. Manage the consequences of change so people won’t resist it. The immediate consequences of doing things differently are usually negative — for example, the effort to learn, making more mistakes, or working with different people or new equipment. But change is easier to achieve when a positive result is made evident. More positive reinforcement up front, as the change is occurring, will yield more positive behavior toward the change.

Managers will never get the behavior changes they need for long-term, continuous improvement unless they are observant, patient, persistent and willing to provide positive reinforcement.

If a manager doesn’t understand and can’t explain the behavior needed to meet management’s goals, then he or she can’t manage.

Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D., who coined the term “performance management,” is founder of management consultancy Aubrey Daniels International, president of the Aubrey Daniels Institute, and author ofPerformance Management: Changing Behavior That Drives Organizational Effectiveness” and five other business books. He can be reached at [email protected].