Behaviors – The Driver of Performance


If you want to change attitudes, start with a change in behavior.

– William Glasser

The behaviors that are engrained in your organization are well established. They make up the culture of the organization and act as a north pole. They tend to bring the organization back to its established way of doing things. This pull is why it is so difficult to get new programs to be effective unless they are aligned with the culture. You must begin with an honest assessment of the engrained behaviors. Both the strengths and weaknesses need to be understood.

Have individuals been explicitly or implicitly rewarded for taking operating risks? Do they measure their value by their fire-fighting skills or their prevention skills? How much does analytics versus emotion play in decision-making? How effective are communications across organizational boundaries? Are people aware of what they don’t know or do they know it all? Many similar questions in total comprise your organization’s culture.

There are two poles of management style that also need evaluation. Neither is particularly effective in achieving a mindset of excellence, but both are important to understand as you evaluate your organization’s behaviors and resulting culture.

First is the coercive style. It is prescriptive and rules-based. It tends to be characterized by a system of evaluations, punishments, or threats of punishment. The coercive style is a “my way” approach with little time for consultation, input, or alternative options. It lacks transparency of communication, and communication is one way, top to bottom. Training becomes an exercise where compliance is more important than competency, learning, and growth.

Second is an ever-changing style. It lacks clarity, is inconsistent, and uncertain. It is driven by what is deemed necessary at any given time. Its lack of focus causes significant stress and confusion. By its nature it is a source of complexity that makes it difficult for individuals and groups to function at a high level of excellence.

Between these poles is a middle ground. An honest and cold-eyed assessment of your current behaviors, habits, and resulting culture is essential to assess how far you are from that middle ground.

Via careful examination of many organizations that are successful in keeping operational incidents low, five key behaviors have been found that characterize those organizations. These behaviors apply across industries, countries, and cultures. They are fundamental to effective human behavior, both on and off the job.

I don’t know how it started, either.
All I know is that it’s part of our corporate culture.”

A Questioning Attitude is Pervasive

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.

 – Albert Einstein

You can’t fix what you don’t know. Everyone must have a continuing drive to discover the unknown. Nothing makes it more clear than looking at high-profile incidents. If ExxonMobil had thought that the circumstances surrounding the Exxon Valdez accident were a possibility, you can be sure the disaster would not have happened. If BP had conceived of the possibility of a complex set of circumstances that resulted in the Deepwater Horizon well blowout, they would have taken steps to avoid that incident. Every day, an ever-changing set of circumstances, when aligned, can create new risks that have not yet been conceived.

This requires a healthy sense of vulnerability in everyone and a strong commitment to slow down, observe, and think about what could go wrong. The carpenter’s axiom to measure twice and cut once is appropriate.

There can never be complacency about the routine. Situations must be verified as to whether they are indeed routine. Every change from “normal” must be understood and actioned. Everyone must feel empowered and obligated to ask the hard questions even when that might seemingly slow down action.

Simply put, workers are conditioned to anticipate potential problems and to be alert to unusual conditions. A questioning attitude must be visibly rewarded within the organization in two key ways: praising those who identify potential problems before they become real and promoting those who are most successful in developing those skills.

A questioning attitude is foundational to critical thinking. It is applied in three situations: assessing the risks associated with what Could Happen, Is Happening, and Did Happen. Each situation is a learning opportunity to prevent occurrence, limit or stop an impending situation, or to prevent recurrence by effectively understanding the cause and taking appropriate follow-up actions.

Critical thinking is a learned competency. It is learned through practice. Nurture a passion for curiosity, model it every day, give people the time to question, and you will be well on the way to a mindset of excellence.

Act with Integrity and Courage

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.

– Winston Churchill

Collections of people who can stand up and speak and sit down and listen are a powerful force for excellence. Rewarding these behaviors is core to your leadership style and results in an organization that becomes transparent, involved, and self-motivated. All employees can be relied upon to do what they say they will and what is expected, whether someone is looking or not. They have the courage to do what is right.

Individuals don’t make excuses. They make good quality decisions and own those decisions in a strong incident-prevention culture. Everyone holds themselves and each other accountable for doing the job safely and correctly every time.

Another important behavioral characteristic is that incidents get thoroughly and honestly investigated. Too often, investigations lead to the simple cause of a need for more training. When such an investigational cause is brought forward, it should be an immediate flag that the investigation has not dug deeply enough. It is often the path of no accountability. The employee wasn’t responsible and the supervisor didn’t have to assume responsibility for system failures. This results in another mind-numbing training session that doesn’t get to the real problem. But everyone feels like they have successfully dodged a bullet and can get back to doing things as they have always been done. It takes courage to go deeper—and courage should be a behavior that is rewarded.

In sound incident-prevention organizations, individuals speak up when they make a mistake so that everyone can learn. This requires two conditions to be met in your organization. First, a look for the guilty party culture must be eliminated,, and this is the responsibility of the top executives. Also, mistakes that do not involve negligence should not be treated as “organization felonies,” but in most cases, should become a learning experience for everyone involved.

Design, engineering, construction, and planning processes also benefit from demonstrated integrity and courage to avoid shortcuts and deliver technology and systems that have been risk-engineered. Situational awareness is enhanced during operations as the freedom to speak and listen makes people more observant and prepared to act when something is perceived as “not right.”

Make integrity not just a vision and value statement on a poster. Make it the “way you work.”

Engage Everyone

This world of ours…must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.

– Dwight D. Eisenhower

General Eisenhower’s challenge in World War II was to unite the energies of many individuals and interests and align them with a common goal. Today the challenges of leading a government or private enterprise are no different. Your greatest resource is the people in your organization. Good ideas, innovation, preventive actions, and superb execution of operations come from people. Every person has a role in success. Your challenge is to leave no one behind.

Some surveys have found that 30% of workers are engaged in, enthusiastic about and committed to their workplace. Nearly half can be characterized as “not engaged” and another 20% are actively disengaged.

How many of your workers have “checked out” or are going through the motions? To achieve operational excellence in planning, execution, and learning from failure, workers have to have their head in the game and this should represent a major focus area for you as a leader.

Engagement is often a slogan or a half-hearted commitment. At the deepest level, everyone acts as each other’s keeper. Given the seriousness of what they do, all employees actively back each other and value their input. They look for what might be right and wrong in another’s area or what a co-worker might have missed, and expect the same in return.

Engagement is not just a human resource function. It is a prime responsibility of leaders. Good ideas are sought from all, and active two-way dialogue exists and is meaningful. Busy leaders take the time to effectively communicate the “whys” and listen to suggestions on “hows.” It has been called management by walking around by some but this almost trivializes the need for frequent and substantive exchanges to keep everyone aligned with what and how things get done. In the end, the best organizations have everyone come to work with their head in the game.

Meeting day-to-day pressures can increase the likelihood that engaging everyone becomes a missed opportunity.

Here is a simple checklist to help you maintain your focus on engaging everyone.

Increase Knowledge

To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the
meaning of true knowledge.

– Socrates

The more you know the harder it is to learn. True knowledge comes from a willingness to be surprised and the humility to accept the limitations of your knowledge.

In the very best organizations, all employees understand not just what they do but why they do it. They continually expand their understanding of the systems, processes, and hazards in their workplace. They continually seek greater knowledge, not just of their immediate work area or activity, but also of other areas that interact with theirs.

A workforce that is broadly engaged is almost a precursor to a learning organization. People come to work to learn about the risks around them. They seek out knowledge. They observe the best behaviors of others and emulate them. They devote time to practice and prepare. They utilize the expertise of others and openly share what they know.

They are team-focused and take time to work with those who need help. They recognize that this is in their self-interest because it will result in a safer workplace that benefits them and everyone else.

Increasing knowledge is much more than corporate learning classes. It is a personal commitment to come to work each day to make yourself and the people around you better.

Leaders must also guard against the Knowledge Paradox. Leaders left on their own often fall back to what has worked in the past, and if that doesn’t work, they jump to another past experience. The result is often:

  • Risk of becoming aimless, lurching from idea to idea
  • Activity with little progress, going in circles
  • Reluctance to admit they can’t solve their problems by themselves

The solution is to step back and look outward:

  • Accept that you don’t have all the answers
  • Seek fresh perspectives from “thought partners”
  • Engage others
  • Understand today’s needs and how best to meet them
  • Don’t measure progress by time spent in training programs

Use a Structured Approach

Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.

– Steve Jobs

Excellence requires consistency, predictability, and reliability. Even in environments of high change and innovation, the best companies have a structured way of proceeding that is understood and followed. A structured approach is not bureaucracy. It is a way to effectively manage risks and produce excellent results.

Where procedures exist, they are strictly followed. People recognize there is a right way to perform their tasks, they do it that way, and they expect the same from others. They do not tolerate shortcuts. They don’t use “personal procedures.”

This does not mean that procedures are followed blindly. It does mean that when changes to procedures are indicated or when a new procedure is required, there is a formal process in place to review and authorize such change.

A trap in the structured approach are procedures that are too long, too complex, and too many to be able to be credibly dealt with. Leaders must continually look at this trap and work to simplify their structure.

Procedures that are not crisp, clear, and simple actually result in their being ignored, which elevates operational risk.

Colin Powell said, “Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers.” Be a great leader and don’t let your structured approach become bureaucratic. Have a structured way to sunset those processes that are not useful. Have a way to evaluate the effectiveness of your processes—redesign and reinvent when necessary. Settle for nothing less than excellence.

What follows is an example of how to make the five behaviors an integral part of your planning, operational, and review processes. In three simple pages, you can define behaviors and expectations that remove complexity and clarify what excellence looks like from the perspective of Could Happen, Is Happening and Did Happen.