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Changing Employee Behavior

Q. I run a small business with about 25 employees and I am faced with a challenge. I need to change the behavior of my employees. I have asked them repeatedly to turn in their timesheets before they leave work on Friday. When I make an announcement to the company, things get better for a week or two, but then they regress to the former state. How can I fix this problem permanently?

A. Changing behavior is challenging, but it can be done. There are three straightforward steps:

Measure the behavior – Regardless of what the behavior is, the first step to changing it is to measure it. If at all possible, the measurement should be objective and quantified. Making the measure objective rather than subjective eliminates the possibility of an argument about the outcome. Were the timesheets turned in on time? This is binary—yes or no. They either were or they weren’t. There should be no room for debate. Objective measure are preferable.

Second, the measures should, if at all possible, be quantified. If 20 of 25 timesheets were turned in on time, the on time rate is 80 percent. Quantifiable measures can be tracked and plotted over time. Trends are easy to identify. Improvements are obvious—so are problems. Even subjective measures can be quantified. For example, suppose you want your phone answered with a pleasant voice. Whether or not a voice is pleasant is clearly subjective. However, the measure can be quantified. The phone was answered with a pleasant voice 43 times out of 50—an 86 percent success rate.

Pay attention to the results – It is great to measure behavior and that is the first step, but by itself this is insufficient. If you measure results, but they go into a drawer and you don’t pay attention to them, nothing will change. We often say, what you measure and pay attention to is what you get. If you want timesheets turned in on time, measure performance and let people know that you are paying attention to results. Post them. Announce them at company meetings. You have to make sure that everyone in the company knows that this is important to you.

Enforce consequences – Finally, there will need to be consequences for failure to perform. Be careful about making draconian public decrees such as, I’ll fire the next person whose timesheet is late. Suppose the next late timesheet comes from a 20 year employee who always turns her timesheet in on time. However, on this Friday she ran out of the office early because her daughter was critically injured in an automobile accident and she forgot her timesheet. Obviously, you’ll want to make an exception. However, you also don’t want to bend your policy. (By the way, in this case, bend it.)

However, it would have been much better for you to deal with repeat offenders privately. Be careful about making public ultimatums that you may not want to enforce. If it becomes necessary to discipline a repeat offender, people will get the message.

By the way, consequences can be positive as well as negative. For example, you could buy the company lunch if employees achieve a threshold success rate.

Changing employee behavior can be difficult, but we’ve seen the three steps outlined above work time and time again. If you are committed and follow these steps faithfully, behavior will change. The key is consistency.

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