A fundamental principle, what one might call a natural law, is that people choose to act and behave based on what they believe to be true about how they see the world around them. Neuroscience research substantiates this claim. The human brain functions in a pattern recognition system. Patterning is phenomenally strong and we create a “confirmation bias” to accept outside inferences and influences that match the patterns we have created for how we choose to see the world in which we live. As a result, your brain works very hard to defend your current habits, even toxic and destructive ones. Behind our thoughts are our assumptions, the source for the way we think and act. We have acquired these assumptions throughout our lifetime, and as we collect them and file them away, we rarely bring them back to the surface level of our consciousness. This is fundamentally why leaders can have little, direct effect on changing the behaviour of problem employees unless they establish accountability systems that require self-awareness, self-management, and behaviour-based expectations of human performance not just technical performance.
Imposing outward controls to change behaviour provides only a “quick fix” modification of behaviour that is not linked to any internal control. Once the force of the external constraint, whether negative consequence or positive incentive, loses its effectiveness, individuals will revert to behaviour driven by the assumptions of the internal drivers, mental models, focus frames, and cognitive, confirmation biases.
Consequently, to be truly effective in our responsibility to those we lead, we must:
• clearly establish the standards and desired results we expect in behaviour;
• identify clearly for problem employees why their behaviour does not meet those standards and expectations;
• hold these employees accountable and get them to acknowledge their need to change; and
• if they fail to change, remove them from the organization.
This is the most challenging aspect of performance coaching for team members. To adequately acknowledge the need to change my behaviour, I must be compelled to search for, examine and question those unconscious assumptions I have buried deep in the recesses of my mind. I must challenge the prevailing patterns I have acquired and formed over time and life experiences and replace them with more positive, effective and productive patterns. This is truly why so much coaching and counseling is ineffective in bringing about internal and lasting change to employees with behaviour problems.
At this stage of the process, most employees will say whatever they think is necessary to get out of the counseling session and do whatever is necessary to keep their jobs. They modify their behaviour to your expectation until doing so becomes too much of a burden. This stress is caused when their modified, external behaviour is not in alignment with their internal understanding of how they choose to act and how they choose to see the world around them. Once that burden becomes too hard to bear, they revert back to following their internal drivers (old patterns) and their toxic behaviour returns to the workplace.
When this pattern emerges with an employee, the only question remaining is how long you will continue to invest time in someone who poisons the work place. Firing often isn’t necessary: Our practical work experience suggests that when problem employees get the sense that you are serious about accountability, they will exercise their freedom of choice and decide they do not want to work for an organization where they are held accountable for their behaviour.
Quint Studer, a former hospital CEO, states, “Allowing employees with a bad attitude to work in the organization is a morale killer. When leaders begin to hold employees accountable for their attitudes and ask those to leave who do not meet standards of behaviour, organizations receive a huge boost.” (See his book Hardwiring Excellence [Gulf Breeze, Fla.: Fire Starter Publishing, 2003], p. 81.)
Conventional thinking would have us believe we should be spending the majority of our time trying to “cure” the ills of our problem employees at the expense of investing that time developing the skill and talent of our middle and high-level performers. We need to challenge this thinking and have the courage to replace it with a model that focuses on developing and exploiting the skills of our high performers while mitigating the detrimental behaviour of the problem employee. Build a culture based on individual accountability and you will eliminate your recruiting and retention problem. You will also gain the respect and appreciation of your loyal and productive members of the organization.
At the heart of accountability is the skill of Positive Presence — an innovative thought model connecting workplace behaviour to emotional energy and provides a systematic, programmatic methodology for equipping leaders with the knowledge and understanding necessary for developing and sustaining the behaviour skills indicative of a culture of accountability.