Why people do what they do

If you are like many leaders or managers in business large or small, then you know getting optimal team performance is difficult to achieve in practice. It’s a problem for all organisations.

Putting good players into the team supplies the foundation for good performance, but that is only part of the process. As the manager, you need to encourage behaviours that create the performance, team spirit and results that you want and need.

A powerful way of encouraging these behaviours is the use of proper positive reinforcement within a well-defined performance management system. Many people have written many articles, reports, and books about the use of positive reinforcement. Still, many managers and business owners wrestle with how to apply the concepts appropriately. One reason many people do not get the results they hope for is a misunderstanding of how reinforcement strategies really work.

Positive reinforcement strategies are far more than “pats on the back” and “atta-boys” or “atta-girls”. The effective use of positive reinforcement strategies in a structured performance management system relies on a deep understanding of your business systems and the effect of specific employee behaviours on performance and results.

Creating and operating an effective performance management system that applies the principles effectively starts with understanding why people do what they do.

There are many psychological models to explaining how a multitude of cause-and-effect relationships, situations and environments affect behaviour. We won’t go into them all here, but you can research the topic of Psychological Behaviourism by clicking here.

One behaviour model says that each person’s behaviours form from the consistent relationship between situations/events just prior to their behaviours and the consequences created by their behaviours.

An example of this:
We enter a dark room and turn on the light switch, because we expect light to be the result. Darkness is the antecedent. Turning on the light switch is the behaviour. Light is the consequence.

If we enter a room and consistently get no light when the switch is turned on, we resort to an alternate behaviour, i.e. using a flashlight or a candle.


In order to make this principle work towards inspiring high-level behaviours, we need to identify specific workplace behaviours that produce the desired results. Then we need to create consequences for employees that will reinforce those behaviours. Any consequence that encourages repeat behaviours is a positive reinforcement.

Of course, a nuanced application is key to success. While we can encourage behaviours, we cannot enforce them. Many companies try to enforce appropriate behaviours, rather than working to encourage them and the results are never good.

Enforcing behaviours requires a great amount of effort and input and more often than not results in minimal results. Encouraging good behaviour requires minimal effort and input, once the system is in place, and it usually results in superior performance!

Here’s a quick checklist to get you started in instilling positive behavioural changes in your team:

1. Identify the behaviours that create the desired results.
2. Measure the results of the behaviours.
3. Provide feedback to employees.
4. Positively reinforce the effective behaviours.
5. Evaluate the choice of behaviours and measurements.
6. Repetition, repetition, repetition to improve selection and definition of desired behaviours and paired consequences.

At Sewells, we know the importance of human behaviour and how it absolutely drives business results. Over and over, we’ve seen the positive results when behaviours are changed for the better within a company – regardless of the sector. Can you afford to ignore this basic tenet of psychology?

If you’re seeking to change behaviours within your company for the better, we encourage you to call us on 01244 681068 for a quick chat. You’ll be really glad you did!

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