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Positive Results


When it comes to increasing production, managers often begin by looking at the size of their crushers or the throughput of their screens. The human factor,

ADAM MADISON

When it comes to increasing production, managers often begin by looking at the size of their crushers or the throughput of their screens. The human factor, however, is often overlooked because it is not as black and white as the specifications set forth by the manufacturers.

It's true that people don't come with instruction manuals, but don't fret. Human behavior, albeit unpredictable, is a process like any other part of an operation and can be managed as such. Gaining an understanding of this process will help produce a stress-free and profitable working atmosphere.

For a better understanding of the human animal, Staker & Parson Co., a western division of Oldcastle Materials, has turned to former clinical psychologist Aubrey C. Daniels, Ph.D. His company, Aubrey Daniels International, employs a fleet of consultants specializing in leadership development and performance management. These specialists offer a variety of training opportunities for those charged with motivating the people on the company front lines. Daniels says this strategy works almost always, but there are other strategies for removing the unmanageable from the system if it fails.

Chris Kinnersley, vice president of safety and organizational development for Staker & Parson, has built a working relationship with Daniels and is well versed in what the corporate world terms ìperformance management.î This stems from what psychologists understand as operant conditioning, which is behavior modification through the manipulation of consequences. All behavior in the workplace, whether desired or undesired, is the behavior that is being reinforced by experience of prior consequences.

BEHAVIOR IS A PROCESS

There are four behavioral consequences affecting human behavior, Daniels says. They are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment and penalty. Positive and negative reinforcement are the two consequences that increase the likelihood of a behavior. Punishment and penalty decrease the likelihood of a behavior.

Positive reinforcement occurs when something desired is achieved; this could be a bonus or a simple pat on the back. Negative reinforcement occurs when something undesirable is achieved including write-ups or extra work. Punishment occurs when a person actually receives the undesired result. And penalty happens when a person loses something desired.

If an employee is engaging in behavior to achieve something (positive reinforcement), he or she will constantly try to improve in order to attain more of it. But if an employee is trying to avoid a penalty, he or she will only work hard enough to avoid the consequence, essentially producing only the bare minimum.

OUT WITH THE ìOLD SCHOOLî

What Kinnersley describes as ìold schoolî managers most likely are the least effective in employee relations. These heavy-handed managers most often say: ìIf you do it right, then no news is good news. But if you do it wrong, here we are with the hammer.î

As employees anticipate the drop of the hammer, they are performing only well enough to avoid it. Depending on the supervisor, that can represent a very low level of performance, Daniels says. The ìold schoolî management style is exhausting because managers are in constant pursuit of offenders to punish. This is a stressful environment for both supervisors and subordinates, and production will likely suffer.

Managers that rely on the application of positive reinforcement have proven to be much more successful. This may require something as simple as a pat on the back. Staker & Parson puts its most efficient loader operators in the most comfortable loaders. As the employee grows accustomed to this treatment, the supervisor can even elicit the desired behavior while on vacation. Daniels says the employee even will welcome the boss' return in anticipation of positive reinforcement. Quite the opposite is true for the ìold schoolî manager whose employees will begin slacking off at the first opportunity.

MAKE IT WORK

ìIt always works,î Daniels says. ìPositive reinforcement is defined as any consequence that follows a behavior that increases frequency.î He offers four pointers that are designed to help managers apply positive reinforcement effectively.

  1. Make it personal. All managers need to develop a relationship with their employees in order to understand what they value or appreciate. The reinforcement must suit the employee, Daniels says. What are the employee's long-term goals? Some loader operators are content in being just that. If this is the case, instilling thoughts of a promotion to foreman won't do the job. A gift certificate to a steak house probably won't motivate a vegetarian.

  2. Make it immediate. Daniels says the best time to positively reinforce is while the employee is engaging in the desired behavior. ìIt is naive to think that a behavior that occurs today can be positively reinforced with some bonus or appraisal,î Daniels says. Likewise, immediate negative consequences are much more powerful than those that are delayed.

  3. Make it earned. ìPeople feel more confident when they earn something than when they are given something,î Daniels says. Set goals for your employees. People are more comfortable knowing exactly what they need to do in order to get what they want.

  4. Make it frequent. ìOne positive reinforcement will not change your life,î Daniels says. He recommends building reinforcements into the process so it can occur in the absence of the supervisor. One way to do this is by creating a point system so employees can track their own performance.

INTERMITTENT REINFORCEMENT

Once the desired behavior is maintained, scale back the frequency of reinforcement. This ìintermittent reinforcementî will likely increase the behavior. When the employee engages in a behavior but does not receive the expected reinforcement, he or she will likely step it up a notch. Daniels uses a slot-machine analogy to explain. If the first pull yields a reward, the player will likely pull it again. If that attempt fails, the player continues because every attempt increases the likelihood of winning.

ìIntermittent reinforcement is what causes you to be addicted to it,î Daniels says. ì(Intermittent reinforcement) is what introduces excitement and enthusiasm.î

On the other hand, if that slot machine never pays off, players will walk away. The same is true in the workplace, Daniels says. If a positive behavior is occurring but is never reinforced, the behavior will fade away. This is what Daniels and his crew call extinction, the withdrawal of positive reinforcement.

For example, if proper equipment maintenance is not recognized and reinforced by supervisors, the operators will check tire pressure and oil levels less frequently. The positive reinforcement of supervisor recognition has now been replaced by the reinforcement of saving time by skipping a step in the routine.

CHANGING TIMES, CHANGING BEHAVIORS

Despite management's move away from the ìold school,î many companies still are managed very much like they were 50 years ago, yet our daily lives are vastly different. When discussing the need for frequency, Daniels uses a video-game analogy when emphasizing the need for frequency. Our culture of computers and other gadgetry can offer a reinforcement rate of more than 100 per minute. After 10 years of this lifestyle, younger people expect and require a higher level of reinforcement. What's more, this new generation always is anticipating advancement to the next level.

Technology also impacts the physical process of an operation as well as the behavior of the individuals. A bucket scale on a wheel loader will create a new behavior for the operator. Often these new technologies are met with apprehension by the operator, which was the case with automation as computers and PLCs were first introduced. And, as many experienced, the learning curve can be frustrating.

ìThey will say ëthis is the dumbest thing that we have ever tried,íî Daniels explains. ìThe joke about change is ëare we having fun yet?íî

The first step to introducing a new process is to eliminate any opportunity for resurgence, which is regression to the old behavior. Make the change mandatory and apply positive reinforcement as often as possible. Even though the learning curve may temporarily be more costly or time consuming, emphasize that the new way is the best way. Like a drunk returning to drink, any resurgence may become a full-blown relapse to the undesired behavior. This same theory applies to any new procedure whether it is safety-related or a new business strategy.

WHEN POSITIVE FAILS

When problem employees' behavior fails to respond appropriately to traditional reinforcement, or improper behavior continues to be reinforced, discipline may be required. However, if Daniels' strategies are being fully utilized the need for punishment will be greatly reduced. Nonetheless, at certain times, it is essential to dust off the ìold schoolî manager's hammer. However, be careful of how that hammer is swung; punishing and penalizing also are processes and there are right and wrong ways to use them.

Like rewards, punishment should be applied as quickly as possible. Punishment also needs to be appropriate for the individual. Daniels says fining a professional athlete $1,000 is not effective because that is such an insignificant portion of his or her salary. Suspending workers for poor attendance also may be ineffective.

Daniels laughs as he recalls a man who was suspended for three days for tardiness. ìThe guy said, ëCan you make it five? Me and Jake want to do a little fishing.íî Daniels adds, ìOut west in the rock business, there is a time when people want to go hunting. So if you get suspended during hunting season, that's great.î

Another common mistake is reinforcing the bad behavior, Daniels notes. Often a supervisor will actually compliment an employee by saying something like ìyou're a good employee, but this behavior needs to stop.î Instead, a supervisor should be direct in stating what the undesired behavior was and what the future consequences will be. That should be followed by a good description of the desired behavior, and the employee should be complemented only when that behavior is achieved. Supervisors also should avoid applying a negative consequence by saying something like ìit's about timeì or why weren't you doing that all along.î

DISCIPLINE MANAGEMENT PROGRAMS

Many companies take a formalized approach to taking disciplinary action. This may be contrary to much of what Daniels teaches, but it is a necessary part of corporate structure. Kinnersley says Staker & Parson utilizes a progressive discipline policy of warnings and write-ups that can eventually escalate to a termination. This is the opposite end of what he calls the push-pull theory. ìThere is a stick on one end, but there is a carrot on the other,î Kinnersley says.

Daniels is not a fan of formal progressive discipline, however, saying that punishment should stop a behavior and providing more of it usually won't work. Also, poor performers often will play the system if they understand the structure. It also contradicts his notion that things should be kept on personal levels.

Unfortunately, organized discipline methods are required to protect the company from retaliation of disgruntled employees. Even at-will employers can be sued for wrongful termination and lose, explains Toni C. Talbot, human resources specialist. Having a structured discipline management program that produces a paper trail protects the company.

According to Talbot, it is best to have an at-will relationship with documentation signed by the employee that the relationship can be terminated without warning. However, that relationship should be managed as if the company were a just-cause employer. This means management should document every disciplinary action (including verbal warnings) and all employees should be treated similarly. Staker & Parson operates in this manner but not just for legal protection; it also is about fairness.

ìEmployees are our greatest resource, and we want to be as fair and clear as possible,î Kinnersley says. ìWe want to set them up for success, not wait and set up a booby trap.î

WRITE IT DOWN

ìIf you document everything, you are going to go nuts,î Talbot says. ìYou want to document any kind of specific incident that you feel merits documentation. So it is something extraordinary ó both positive and negative.î

If a supervisor discusses an undesired behavior or poor performance with an employee and does not write it down, those conversations might as well have never happened. So when it comes time to write up or suspend an individual, the action may appear unwarranted. Talbot says managers need to be looking for patterns of behaviors for an employee's file. The employees do not need to be presented every document, but they may have certain access privileges to their file depending on what state they work in.

ìYou have to write things down,î Kinnersley says. ìThe varied things that we deal with every day would lend to ourselves forgetting things, misinterpreting or remembering differently than if they are written down explicitly.î

A written document also can have a powerful impact on an employee's behavior, especially if he or she has to sign it because the employees will know that their actions will be remembered. And if a consequence is assigned for future violations, there will be further reinforcement of the desired behavior.

These documents (and conversations) also need to be focused on violations to specific policies. Talbot recalls a situation when an employee was suspected of abusing steroids. He was a big man that exercised frequently, would lose his temper very easily and threaten other employees. The company wasted a considerable amount of time speculating on the possibility of steroid abuse when it should have addressed the acts of intimidation.

APPROPRIATE TERMINATION

When problem employees refuse to clean up their acts, a company should cut its losses, eliminate the bad apples and find suitable replacements. However, employers should never fire on the spot, Talbot says. They should prepare a document to inform the now-terminated employee and schedule a meeting for Monday morning. This will allow the person to hit the ground running and file for unemployment and start looking for new work. If they are let go on Friday, they have all weekend to stew in their frustration and skim the phone book for attorneys.

In most cases, employees fire themselves, and if the supervisor has done his or her job there will be no questions or accusations from the employee. They will know exactly why and a paper trail will support the facts. If there is any question about the legitimacy of a termination, it should be reviewed by an attorney. Talbot says an employer also has better protection against unemployment claims if it has at least two disciplinary actions for attendance issues.

Treating all employees consistently also limits potential claims of discrimination. If two employees of a different ethnicity or gender violate the same policy and one is penalized and other is not, look out.

Wrongful termination claims also can be won with the help of federal whistle-blower protection, Talbot says. It is common for angry employees to contact the Department of Labor to file claims of unsafe working conditions. Making such a claim, essentially makes the person a just-cause employee.

These cases usually work themselves out, especially if it is a trumped up charge, Talbot says. Such employees typically carry a flag of discontent and violations. So if the accuser has a well-maintained file that displays a pattern of behavior, it will be apparent that the allegations are either false or blown out of proportion. Nonetheless, it still helps to have a formal document signed by the employee that says: Any intentionally false and misleading claim will not be tolerated and will be addressed with disciplinary action.

ìWe have people who feel entitled, and if they perceive that they have been done wrong, they will pull all of the guns out and bring the lawyers,î Kinnersley says. ìBut that is not based on our industry, that is based on society. You can watch the news and see that stuff happen all of the time.î

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Employees that feel valued and respected are more likely to be high achievers and less likely to become discipline problems or legal threats. That is another universal truth that Staker & Parson and the experts agree on. Talbot says that if an employee feels degraded at work, the situation will become a game of tit-for-tat. Daniels says that the hardest jobs are those that lack positive reinforcement, which leave employees feeling unappreciated and ó worst of all ó unproductive.

As Staker & Parson enhances its performance management skills, there is less opportunity for problem employees, Kinnersley says. A positive peer pressure pushes the bad apples out of the bunch. Meanwhile, the good employees continue to enhance their performance as they seek positive reinforcement. Meanwhile, managers continue bringing in more profits without the stress of having to watch and punish poor performers.

References:

Aubrey C. Daniels, ìBringing Out the Best in People: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement,î 2000, McGraw-Hill Companies