Changing Behavior with Corrective Feedback

Changing Behavior Part 1_9113664_XS - C

In an earlier discussion, we learned how supportive, feedback can reinforce a behavior you want repeated. In other words, one purpose of supportive feedback is to create behavior repetition. In some situations supportive feedback can actually correct behaviors as well, For example, a manager in one of my workshops had complained that the board of health could condemn his two teenage sons’ bedrooms. So I asked him to try an experiment by watching for any improvement in either boy’s bedroom whether it was intentional or not. When he noticed an improvement, no matter how small, he was to make a fuss with supportive feedback and then observe what happened. He agreed to the experiment and returned a month later with an interesting story.

“First, of all,” he said, “there was a little improvement in the 17 year-old’s bedroom, even though I gave several supportive comments. However, when I found some improvement in my 14 year-old’s bedroom and then made a fuss with supportive feedback, his reaction was totally opposite.”

The manager explained that after dinner one evening he mentioned to his younger son that his bedroom looked cleaner than it had the day before. Within a few minutes the boy was filling a large garbage bag with trash. Then the next evening the younger boy asked his mother if he could borrow some glass cleaner because he wanted to clean the windows in his bedroom.

Can you believe that? The boy wanted to clean the windows!

That manager then made an interesting comment. He said, “You know, I was getting converted to this way of thinking, but when I heard about the glass cleaner, 1 became a committed convert”

“Committed convert” or not, a batting average of .500 isn’t had!

So if using feedback appropriately can solve so many problems, why don’t more managers use it? There are several reasons, but the four most common are 1) managers may not believe that people need or deserve feedback; 2) managers may not have the skills necessary to deliver appropriate feedback; 3) managers may believe they don’t have enough time to deliver appropriate feedback; and, 4) the business world traditionally revolves around the profit and loss statement, not around “being nice to people” by giving appropriate feedback.

One of the most effective ways of eliminating ineffective behaviors from employees is to fill their feedback buckets. When your supportive feedback fills someone’s bucket, and makes them feel good inside, there is a much better chance that that person will act effectively and cause fewer problems in the future. A little investment of your time today will likely bring fewer problems tomorrow. And that, impacts directly to the bottom line of the profit and loss statement!

There are three common methods managers have used in an attempt to change employee behavior. The methods are telling, selling and threatening. The problem is that these commonly used methods are only marginally effective. And if they work at all, it’s only until you turn your hack. Then the person oftentimes goes right back to the same old behavior. If you doubt that, consider your reaction to being told what to do. Isn’t your first reaction to being told what, when, or how one of recoiling or standing firm against the request? And then, how do you feel about being sold on something? It makes most of us feel inferior or unqualified in some manner.  Our natural defensive instincts typically kick in when someone tries to sell us something.

What’s your reaction to being threatened by being told that if you don’t change something immediately there will be a dire consequence? Now, if you believe that what you’ve done is serious, you might accept a line being drawn in the sand. But, what if you don’t ‘believe your behavior deserves a threat?  How effective and long lasting is a threat then?

At this point experienced managers point out that some employees are primarily money driven and are only likely to respond, or change their behavior, when a line is drawn in the sand. To this I respond, remember, changing behavior is almost always a process, not a single event. Sometimes it can even be a very slow process. And sometimes it won’t work, despite our best efforts and intentions. But our obligation as managers is to use the best techniques we can.

It’s important to understand how feedback works for most people so that you can know when to use supportive feedback or corrective feedback. The following chart can help clarify the difference.

The reason why we need to support or correct behaviors is that behaviors drive performance, and performance drives results. When changing employee behavior, it’s very important that the employee clearly understand the connection between what you are asking him/her to do and the impact the change will have on organizational results. Without that connection, the employee is likely to get lost in the process. The process works like this. Positive behaviors tend to drive positive performance, which tends to drive positive results, which deserves supportive feedback, or the positive behavior may not be repeated. Negative behaviors tend to drive negative performance, which tend to drive negative results, which deserves corrective feedback. If supportive feedback doesn’t work, then move on to corrective feedback. If corrective feedback doesn’t work, then move on to drawing a line in the sand with an appropriate level of discipline.

In Part Two of this discussion on corrective feedback we’ll learn a practical method of transferring ownership of both the problem and its solution to the employee. By transferring problem/solution ownership to the employee, you will have a much better chance of a long lasting solution without the collateral damage that can happen when you use the traditional methods of telling, selling or threatening. In the mean time, try using supportive feedback as a tool to correct behavior; how about at home in a child’s messy bedroom?

In an earlier discussion, we learned how supportive, feedback can reinforce a behavior you want repeated. In other words, one purpose of supportive feedback is to create behavior repetition. In some situations sup

portive feedback can actually correct behaviors as well, For example, a manager in one of my workshops had complained that the board of health could condemn his two teenage sons’ bedrooms. So I asked him to try an experiment by watching for any improvement in either boy’s bedroom whether it was intentional or not. When he noticed an improvement, no matter how sm

all, he was to make a fuss with supportive feedback and then observe what happened. He agreed to the experiment and returned a month later with an interesting story.

“First, of all,” he said, “there was a little improvement in the 17 year-old’s bedroom, even though I gave several supportive comments. However, when I found some improvement in my 14 year-old’s bedroom and then made a fuss with supportive feedback, his reaction was totally opposite.”

The manager explained that after dinner one evening he mentioned to his younger son that his bedroom looked cleaner than it had the day before. Within a few minutes the boy was filling a large garbage bag with trash. Then the next evening the younger boy asked his mother if he could borrow some glass cleaner because he wanted to clean the windows in his bedroom. Can you believe that? The boy wanted to clean the windows!

That manager then made an interesting comment. He said, “You know, I was getting converted to this way of thinking, but when I heard about the glass cleaner, 1 became a committed convert”

“Committed convert” or not, a batting average of .500 isn’t bad!

So if using feedback appropriately can solve so many problems, why don’t more managers use it? There are several reasons, but the four most common are 1) managers may not believe that people need or deserve feedback; 2) managers may not have the skills necessary to deliver appropriate feedback; 3) managers may believe they don’t have enough time to deliver appropriate feedback; and, 4) the business world traditionally revolves around the profit and loss statement, not around “being nice to people” by giving appropriate feedback.

One of the most effective ways of eliminating ineffective behaviors from employees is to fill their feedback buckets. When your supportive feedback fills someone’s bucket, and makes them feel good inside, there is a much better chance that that person will act effectively and cause fewer problems in the future. A little investment of your time today will likely bring fewer problems tomorrow. And that, impacts directly to the bottom line of the profit and loss statement!

There are three common methods managers have used in an attempt to change employee behavior. The methods are telling, selling and threatening. The problem is that these commonly used methods are only marginally effective. And if they work at all, it’s only until you turn your hack. Then the person oftentimes goes right back to the same old behavior. If you doubt that, consider your reaction to being told what to do. Isn’t your first reaction to being told what, when, or how one of recoiling or standing firm against the request? And then, how do you feel about being sold on something? It makes most of us feel inferior or unqualified in some manner.  Our natural defensive instincts typically kick in when someone tries to sell us something.

What’s your reaction to being threatened by being told that if you don’t change something immediately there will be a dire consequence? Now, if you believe that what you’ve done is serious, you might accept a line being drawn in the sand. But, what if you don’t ‘believe your behavior deserves a threat?  How effective and long lasting is a threat then?

At this point experienced managers point out that some employees are primarily money driven and are only likely to respond, or change their behavior, when a line is drawn in the sand. To this I respond, remember, changing behavior is almost always a process, not a single event. Sometimes it can even be a very slow process. And sometimes it won’t work, despite our best efforts and intentions. But our obligation as managers is to use the best techniques we can.

It’s important to understand how feedback works for most people so that you can know when to use supportive feedback or corrective feedback.

The reason why we need to support or correct behaviors is that behaviors drive performance, and performance drives results. When changing employee behavior, it’s very important that the employee clearly understand the connection between what you are asking him/her to do and the impact the change will have on organizational results. Without that connection, the employee is likely to get lost in the process. The process works like this. Positive behaviors tend to drive positive performance, which tends to drive positive results, which deserves supportive feedback, or the positive behavior may not be repeated. Negative behaviors tend to drive negative performance, which tend to drive negative results, which deserves corrective feedback. If supportive feedback doesn’t work, then move on to corrective feedback. If corrective feedback doesn’t work, then move on to drawing a line in the sand with an appropriate level of discipline.

In Part Two of this discussion on corrective feedback we’ll learn a practical method of transferring ownership of both the problem and its solution to the employee. By transferring problem/solution ownership to the employee, you will have a much better chance of a long lasting solution without the collateral damage that can happen when you use the traditional methods of telling, selling or threatening. In the mean time, try using supportive feedback as a tool to correct behavior; how about at home in a child’s messy bedroom?

 


Part 2

Changing Behavior Part 2_17739598_XS - CIn the last discussion, we learned how supportive feedback can be used in certain situations to correct behavior. In part two of our discussion on corrective feedback we will look at another method of changing behavior (assuming attempts with supportive feedback didn’t work). The technique we’ll learn in this article focuses on transferring ownership of the problem and its solution to the other person. By transferring problem/solution ownership to the employee, you have a much better chance of a long-lasting solution without the collateral damage that oftentimes happens when you use the traditional methods of telling, selling or threatening.

The scenario we’ll use as a demonstration of this technique involves a son who appears unwilling to make a decision regarding what to do following his high school graduation. The technique used with the son is the same as what you would use with an employee for a similar problem. So as you read this scenario, pay close attention to not only how it is done, but also how you could use it with an employee. I’ll call my son “Junior.”

“Thanks for coming with me to get some pizza. There is something important that I’d like to discuss with you. (By referring to this discussion as “important,” I’m clarifying the son’s expectations as to what is about to happen.)

“I’m concerned about what appears to be a lack of direction in your life. You’re 17 now and graduation is only a few months away. What would you like to be doing a year from now?” (A statement of perception is a good place to begin.)

“I dunno,” Junior said. (This is a common phrase when people either really don’t know the answer, or when they don’t want to give an answer. It’s important to not let an “I dunno” get by you.)

“I think you do know. I know you like to be with your friends, and you like to work with computers and play computer games. You know what you like, and what you don’t. So it’s likely that you’ve given a little thought to next year. I respect you, so I’ll respect your answer.” (This statement challenges the “I dunno” response. Its purpose is to get the other person back on track.)

“Tell me what would you like to be doing in a year?” (The purpose of this question is to get the other person to project his/her thinking away from the immediacy and confusion of today and think forward to a year in the future.)

“I guess going to school.”

“That’s a really good answer.” (Note the use of supportive feedback when I get an answer that helps.)

“What would you like to be doing in five years?” (Now I ask a question that forces him to think even more into the future.)

“Five years after I start school, I guess I would be graduated.”

“That’s where you’ll be in five years. Tell me what you would like to be doing in five years.” (Note that he didn’t answer the question I asked. This is common among people who haven’t been trained to listen. So rephrased my question and asked it again.)

“Some of my friends know exactly what they want to do, but I’m not sure. It might be something with computers.”

“So some of your friends already have a direction in mind. How do you feel about your friends knowing what they want to do, and you being undecided?” (I went to his feelings about the situation, because they can motivate him far better than my threats or admonitions.)

“It bothers me.”

“It sounds like you’re bothered by not knowing, but if you chose today, it might be something in the computer field (I paraphrased his comment back to him so that he can hear what he said, and he knows I’m listening.)

“That’s right.”

“Some people can get confused about a solution to a problem, because they can’t see all the complicated details to the solution. It’s possible that the problem you’re having deciding is in part based on how complex the computer field has become. How close am I?” (Without appearing to be judgmental, I tried to summarize what he might be feeling. At 17 years old he most likely doesn’t understand his inner feelings. Emotional maturity, or understanding feelings, doesn’t occur for most people 22-26 years of age.)

“Well, it is large, and I’m not sure if I want to work in systems, networks, programming, or whatever. I just don’t know.”

“That is exactly my point. I would be confused too. Most people would:” (This statement shows my empathy and respect for his feelings.)

“Tell me, is it absolutely necessary for a first-year computer student to decide his specialty before he begins any classes? What do you think?” (Now I made him consider a critical question.)

“Maybe it’s not.”

“I’m sure it’s not,” (This is supportive feedback again.)

“So if you would like to be graduated with some type of a degree in computers in five years, and you would like to be working toward that goal one year from today by going to school, what do you need to do this week in order to help you achieve those goals?” (This is the question I had in mind from the beginning of the discussion. It, clearly, is the most important question of the discussion. The son’s answer tells me if I’ve been successful.)

“Get ready for graduation and send in my application to the community college.”

“That’s exactly right. What could I do to help?” (I agreed, and then offered supportive feedback.)

Over many years of dealing with people–some who have been cooperative and some less than cooperative–I have developed a series of steps that can be used in a progression from mild intervention to serious intervention. You already know that the first step in this progression is to try supportive feedback. The second step is to transfer problem/solution ownership by using a series of open-end questions, such as the demonstration above. But now what do you do if neither of those techniques work? That will be the subject in the next discussion on corrective feedback. Look for an opportunity, at home or at work, to try transferring problem/solution ownership.

 


Part 3

Last time we learned how to transfer ownership of the problem and solution to the employee (don’t forget this works at home with a son or daughter) by asking a series of directed but open-ended questions.  We learned that if the employee will accept ownership of the problem and solution, there is a high likelihood of long-lasting success.  If, for whatever reason, you don’t use directed questions and resort to imposing a solution, there is a possibility that any change in behavior will be temporary.  That means the conversation will happen again, Changing Behavior Part 3_2032918_XS - Cand most likely very soon.  So if you find yourself dealing with the same problems over and over, perhaps the entire problem isn’t the employee, but it might be the method you have chosen to deal with it.

In this discussion, we’re going to look at the most effective method of imposing a solution, assuming supportive feedback and/or a series of directed questions haven’t been successful. There are situations where neither supportive feedback, nor asking directed questions will get the desired behavior change. Perhaps it’s because of the differences in people, or maybe it has to do with the fact that some people are downright stubborn. The truth is that some situations are difficult and can even be explosive. And remember, sometimes things don’t go as planned. Whatever the reason, managers (parents too) need a direct technique that can work in those situations. In my 30 plus years of dealing with people and a manager and coach, I’ve seen this .final technique work in situations where the others have failed. I hope you’ll notice that it is very similar to the supportive feedback strategy that we learned in a previous discussion.

I learned many years ago that the most effective managers seem to work on their effectiveness at home and then bring those techniques to work. For that reason, let me use an example from home one that commonly plagues many American households. Assume, for this example, that you have a teenager whose bedroom needs a serious cleaning. It’s been cluttered and dirty for a long time. Assume also that you’ve tried supportive feedback and directed questions, but neither has generated any behavior change. So now you decide to impose a solution with an assertive statement. After considering your approach, you choose the right time and place for the discussion.  Sitting your son down you begin.

“Junior, for several weeks you have neglected your bedroom. There are dirty clothes and discarded food wrappers on the floor. Your room hasn’t been cleaned for a long time. You have lived with trash and clutter for so long that I fear it has become a way of life. Quite frankly, I feel embarrassed to have anyone see your room, because it lowers the standard of our entire family.  I need you to take better care of your room. What can I do to help?”

The same technique could be used at work. Consider a stocker who has repeatedly ignored a particular section. Once again, assume you’ve tried supportive feedback and directed questions in an attempt to change behavior, but they haven’t worked. So, you resort to an assertive statement. Using the same formula, the statement could go something like this.

“Sam, for several weeks you have neglected this section. Every day this week, for example, we’ve had at least a dozen out of stocks. I’ve checked the back room and there’s back stock that could be worked in, but for some reason it stays in the back room. I worry that your behavior these past weeks has become a habit. Frankly, I’m embarrassed for our customers and employees in this store to see this section, because it lowers the standard of our entire store. I need you to take better care of this section. I need you to take the responsibility of working the back stock in even before the nuts appear. Now, what could I do to help?”

So, what do you think? Would an assertive statement work? What are the odds that “Junior” or “Sam” will change their behavior? And more importantly, what are the odds that any behavior change will be long-lasting? That might be the more significant question.

The answer is that assertive statements can produce long-term behavior change, but not as often as using supportive feedback or directed questions. But as a final attempt to change behavior, it’s something you need to try. And sometimes, it will work. I’ve been surprised in numerous situations where I made an assertive statement believing it was a futile attempt, only to discover that it worked.

In each of the two examples above, a formula was used. Did you see the similarities? The formula empowers the technique with the possibility of success, because it is constructed in such a way that the receiver gets a very strong message, without damaging personal self-worth. Note also that the formula includes specifics about the undesirable behaviors and their consequences. Another thing the formula does is to approach the employee on a “feelings” level. Our feelings about undesired behaviors can be as powerful in changing behavior as a description of the behavior itself. Too many managers fail to include their feelings about a situation because they feel uncomfortable when describing their feelings. Don’t avoid describing your feelings: use them. Your feelings can be a powerful tool.

The formula used in the examples is as follows: Assertive statements to correct behavior:

1. Describe the specific behavior.

2. Describe the consequences of the behavior.

3. Describe how you feel about the behavior.

4. Describe why you ‘feel that way.

5. Describe what you need changed.

Frankly, of the three methods we’ve learned in this series of three discussion on correcting behavior—supportive feedback, directed questions and assertive statements—I like directed questions most. That technique works more for me, on average, than the other two methods. Remember though, that being skilled in all three methods will give you options. And having options can make you a more effective manager at changing behavior and driving results.

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About the Author

Richard Williams, Ph.D.

Dr. Richard L. Williams has been a business consultant for over 40 years and has conducted more than 5,000 workshops to more than 350,000 managers and executives. Rick’s interests include maximizing human performance, team building, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvement, and instrumentation research and design. Rick has experience in working with a wide range of industries globally.