The Best Preventive Medicine

If it were up to me, all MBA and leadership programs would include the study of human behavior and performance improvement.

By Lisa Toenniges

If it were up to me, all MBA and leadership programs would include the study of human behavior and performance improvement. Performance improvement would be something all managers practice, not just individuals in human resources and learning organizations.

It’s an organization’s leaders who are responsible for designing and implementing policies, procedures and systems, and it’s these important organizational components that must drive employees to perform at their best. To quote performance management guru Aubrey Daniels, the most effective and efficient way to produce results is “reinforcing the right behavior, at the right time and in the right way, with the right frequency.”

Many aspects of managing human behavior and improving performance in the workplace are best done every day, just like brushing your teeth, taking your vitamins, exercising or saving for retirement. And unfortunately, these same aspects are painful and just plain don’t work when we only do them once a year. This is why annual performance reviews can be so ineffective. I have seen time and time again that many of the “people issues” in companies could be prevented, or easily dealt with, if managers were equipped to address them quickly and simply, and in real time.

Performance improvement is a mindset, and it’s important for companies to have this mindset all the time, not just when performance problems arise. When designing new initiatives, too often leaders don’t make decisions based on the principles of human behavior, and on a regular basis they wait far too long to address performance issues. When managers finally do recognize the problems, their first step is often to contact HR or the learning department. Everyone knows that a one-week class or a mobile app will fix everything, right?

This mentality that another department should “make things better” isn’t very efficient and certainly doesn’t keep the accountability where it should be — with the manager. So if throwing learning at a problem isn’t fixing it, perhaps it’s time to try something different. What if managers were taught scientific knowledge about behavior and performance improvement, and were able to practice it daily?

I can only imagine a company where management is fluent in performance improvement principles. Imagine if the planning for each new initiative started, every time, with a discussion of how the change affects people, what human issues need to be addressed and what research-based solutions could be put in place to ensure success. I can only imagine an environment where when a problem crops up, managers can quickly diagnose and remedy it without getting human resources or the learning organization involved.

In his book “Oops! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time and Money (And What to Do Instead),” Daniels wrote about how important it is to “create a workplace that causes employees to do their best every day.” Why not do that? Why not make sure that individuals in our organizations, those who are responsible for motivating the workforce, can create a workplace where employees indeed do their best every day?

The study of human behavior has gone on for centuries, and there is a tremendous amount of evidence-based research on the subject. But just because you’ve been a great employee doesn’t mean you’re automatically ready to be a manager of people. And just because you’ve been managing a team for a while doesn’t mean you’re doing it right. There are many myths about what works when it comes to managing, and these myths continue to be perpetuated in organizations — often with little success.

It’s not difficult to see how ratcheting up your managers’ skills on human behavior and performance improvement could lead to better overall company health and better bottom-line results. Why not try a bit of preventive medicine and apply these research-based principles every day? It sure beats waiting until your organization is sick and heading to the hospital.