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5 ways to reinforce negative behaviours

April 20, 2009

I was discussing with a colleague how procedures at our current job were less well known to the staff than the ones at my former job. Now both jobs involved an element of safety (one was actioning requests for emergency services, the other controlling aircraft). Failing to apply the correct procedure in either role could have dire consequences.

So why are the workplaces so different?

We came to the conclusion that it was a result of the ‘culture’ that had developed within the organisation and the perceived consequences of of failing to act appropriately. In particular, we identified five main mistakes that the organisation was propagating down the chain of management (remember, as far as an employee is concerned, the next level up is ‘the management’ and representative of the entire organisation’s leadership). These were:

  • Ignoring the product, unless a complaint was made
  • Displaying indifference unless their own performance was at stake
  • Condoning incorrect practices by not fixing them
  • Encouraging behaviours inconsistent with documentation
  • Enforcing procedures based on consensus, rather than performance indicators.

This is also relevant to workplace training, particularly in post-mentoring development where the student has achieved basic competency, but needs to develop further and hone their expertise. Hence, the same five mistakes occurring within this particular organisation can be applied to supervising any employee during their post-training development.

The five mistakes

Ignorance: Ultimately, behaviours are established through feedback. We will correct ineffective behaviours based on feedback from the experts and likewise, repeat those behaviours that have a positive impact on our performance objectives. When senior staff don’t assess our performance, or only investigate it when a complaint is bought to bear, there is no opportunity for feedback or a to establish whether our actions are the most appropriate for the given situation.

Don’t get me wrong, most of us can readily apply some self-assessment techniques, but often these are limited by our experience and our awareness of how our actions impact on the rest of the organisation and its objectives.

indifference: A worse problem occurs when we are being assessed, but are not advised of the results. An employee who continually makes mistakes that go unacknowledged, or worse, unnoticed, will begin to question the value of their efforts. Why place extra effort to achieve better results when mediocre performance is accepted. Typically, this will be applied equally to high performers who will then become discontented with the lack of acknowledgement for their extra effort.

I am regularly countered with the “But aren’t we all adults” argument and that we should all be trusted to work autonomously. Of course we do mean well and usually don’t ‘slack off’ just because we can, but we all have different standards and interpretations of what is expected of us

Condoning incorrect practices: When we or someone else makes a mistake and it’s taken with a ‘grain of salt’ or ‘laughed off’ without fixing it, the consequences of the actions leading up to it can be ignored. Additionally, the mistake mat not be understood by the person committing it. How would it be fixed? How can it be avoided or its impact mitigated? What else does it affect? Once again, The value is in the feedback – what behaviours do we reinforce, adjust or avoid?

Encouraging bad behaviours: Through your own actions or behaviours, you could be encouraging others to do something wrong. Do you cut corners, adjust procedures or use alternative strategies to those prescribed? Do you actually know the procedure or just ‘wing it’ using the benefit of experience or a wider range of knowledge? This may be an acceptable practice, but how will it be viewed (an implemented) by those with lessor understanding or skill.

What if everybody is doing it wrong and by doing things the right way causes problems with the the rest of the team’s performance?

Enforcing incorrect procedures: By failing to standardise practices, you can force someone to do the wrong thing. This commonly occurs when two supervisors like things done their particular way and this forces staff to adopt different practices, depending on who is currently running the show. No big deal right – what if one of them isn’t following the procedure to the letter of the law through ignorance, misinterpretation or ‘knowing better’? What does the employee do then?

What if everybody does it wrong (I know the book says this, but that’s not the way it is done around here)? This could mean that the documented procedure needs amending, but then who gets to decide which procedures are treated similarly and more importantly, how do I know which ones are affected?


These insidious behaviours may seem innocent enough in context, but often are an indicator of bigger problems. It is similar to the “Fixing Broken Windows” theory. Simple things like feedback, post training performance evaluation and recognising the efforts of employees, especially those still trying to find their place in the organisation, can go a long way to ensuring that team members are actually given the opportunity to perform.

Download my free e-book THE WORKPLACE TRAINERS TOOL KIT Eight models for effective on the job training.

New e-book coming soon: “IMPROVE YOUR TRAINING FROM WITHIN” Using the ‘hot wash’ to refine your training program.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 15, 2009 1:42 pm

    Very informative post. This is a good summary of basic Organizational Behavior principles.

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