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Motivation Matters: Get rid of deficiency, not employee

Sometimes employees do not respond well to a manager’s attempts to develop a motivational environment in the workplace. These are your “problem employees,” and they can absorb a great deal of your time. Such situations can make other challenges seem easy.

So, how do you turn poorly performing employees around? Research has shown that behavior modification, including positive reinforcement, is a most successful approach in moving an employee from an amotivated state to a motivated one.
The first thing we can do is to resist labeling people (as I just did above!). Labels often exaggerate matters; however, an employee with a problem — about timeliness, as an example — is someone with whom one can work to bring about change.
Let’s look at a mild case (more complicated matters require more complicated solutions, but this is a good start): Roberta, your receptionist, is doing a fine job greeting visitors and redirecting phone calls. But her responsibilities include arriving by 8:30 in the morning. She is often 10-15 minutes late. You have had turnover in that position for the past several years, and have been reluctant to confront her.
There are several ways a manager might view this: One is as a challenge to his authority, leading to an aggressive approach: “I’m warning you…” a defensive boss could well blurt out. Given his position, he might prevail — for the short-term, at least. Or there is always rationalization: “It’s not a big deal. She’s basically doing the job well enough.”
Many a poorly-performing employee got his or her start down the wrong path this way. Often a boss tries to avoid confronting an individual, thinking such things as “What if she goes into my boss complaining about me?” But a passive posture will simply serve to reinforce the unacceptable conduct. One shouldn’t be surprised if the development of a “bad attitude” ensues next. To add to the mix, these behaviors are sometimes “contagious;” others may begin to drift in later than usual.

Behavior modification involves a systematic way to bring about change. This is a step-by-step approach, where one looks for gradual improvements.

Step One: Confront the matter head-on.

“Roberta, you’re doing a fine job in nearly all aspects of your responsibilities, including the efficient handling of calls and customer visits. I want to see that level of excellence in your timeliness of arrival. Please be sure to be in by 8:30 a.m., our start of business. I’ve got to return a call. See you later.”
What the manager has done is to clearly call Roberta on the deficiency. No vague hints. Very often that’s all it takes to bring about improved performance. I’ll say that again: This is often all that’s needed.

Step Two: Reward improvement.

This positive reinforcement approach involves what is called successive approximation. If there is even partial improvement, reward it. If you know Roberta likes compliments (not everyone does), acknowledge her progress. If there is further improvement, reward it again. But remember: A reward for one person is not necessarily one for another. Be sensitive to tone, so that you don’t come across as too controlling or condescending. Perhaps this employee is now extrinsically motivated (looking for rewards) and not the intrinsically motivated, self-starter you were hoping for, but that can come, in time.

Step Three: If no improvement, use a negative reinforcer.

This age-old behavior modifier was taught to us by our mothers. “Have you cleaned up your room yet?” (to be repeated until — the room is clean). This is called negative reinforcement — or, more commonly, nagging. So, if there is no further improvement, remind her again that morning, as well as at the end of the day. “Be sure to be on-time tomorrow” in the current example.

Step Four: If still uncorrected, punish.

Now is the time to bring to Roberta’s attention that there will be consequences if the lateness continues. Perhaps a starting point would be a note to her file after the next incident, which could hurt her chances of advancement or salary increases in the future. Punishment has been found to be the least effective means of behavior change. It triggers emotions in the person receiving it, who will often get focused on the appropriateness of the punishment rather than the offense itself. Yet, it does have its benefits, as a final measure.
Given our litigious society, it is often wise to bring in the human resources pros for ideas. Your goal is to bring the employee along the motivation continuum, from an amotivated, through extrinsically motivated (the carrots and sticks world), into a self-motivated state. It can be painful and time-consuming (although hiring and training replacements can be as well), but it works.
Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational and sports psychologist with Fordham University, a former senior line executive in the television industry, and the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation. He and his wife, Veronica, a former senior HR executive of an international investment bank, head up a business consulting firm based in Campton, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction, and team building. Questions are welcomed at

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