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Behavior is what business is all about

Por Hani Masgidi

The banner on this page explains it all: why do people act the way they do? We often ask ourselves this question. The banner also gives us a simple but straightforward answer: because consequences support this behavior!

In a business environment many behaviors occur daily. Some of those behaviors affect business directly (as well as positive as negative) while others are socially needed. By understanding what drives human behavior, we can create the conditions necessary to encourage desired behavior. The ABC-model is an instrument which helps you understand the forces that drives human behavior and applies these principles to instruments like a reward system, an organizational change, projects and so on.

You can gain perspectives on why people act as they do and discover the patterns of consequences and antecedents that are associated with behaviors.

Next a brief explanation how the ABC works. At this moment it is good to know that ABC stands for:

Antecedents, Behavior and Consequences. So let´s start to manage behavior the right way.

Antecedents prompt you to act – An antecedent (sometimes referred to as an activator) is something that occurs before a certain behavior. This can be anything from a directive to the effect of the working environment. Antecedents appear both in everyday life and at the workplace. Even the internet itself operates on the function of antecedents. The fact that you are here on this homepage is already a consequence of an antecedent.

 Just click this button . Everything that prompts you to act a certain way (like asking you to click the button), could be called an antecedent. Now you understand that the Internet can be seen as one big function of the ABC-model. A funny looking button inspires you to push it, an interesting item on a homepage make you click the link, a good looking homepage prompts you to give it the attention it deserves. An antecedent is an important part of the ABC-model to get behavior started; it prompts you to take action.

In the world of business these would include policies, goals, directives, announcements, training programs, procedures, vision statements, and so forth. All of these ‘set the stage’ for a work-behavior or performance to take place, but they do not guarantee that it will occur. Managers are also frequent users of antecedents, telling people what to do, figuring out what to tell them to do, or figuring out what to do because people didn’t do what they told them to do. They even spend approximately 80% of their time using the A of the ABC, neglecting the B and the C (Daniels 1989).

Yes, you can say that business thrives on the use of antecedents. And then to think that you have never heard of it before? Although managing on antecedents appears to work, it is not the most efficient way to manage a business and its sets of behaviors, actions or tasks of employees.

For those interested in a few imaging-examples of antecedents (in case the picture isn’t clear yet…), they may click me. Like to check if you understand this? We have prepared some questions for you.

 Behavior, how to do it….

Behavior is the center of our universe. We behave in such manner that we feel is comfortable or just necessary. In business moneymaking is the key goal. In order to reach this goal many actions must take place. We have to push buttons, write reports, have long meetings, put candybars in a box and place an order by a supplier. Whatever we do or what ever has to be done, certain patterns of behavior are involved.

Imagine for a moment that an alien spacecraft is hovering over your place of work. Then imagine that it ‘freezes’ all your employees like statues. Machines continue to run, but people do not. The telephone rings, but no one listens. How long will it be before your business is affected negatively? The same situation is possible when a snowstorm hits your town and all roads are closed for five days (Thomas B. Wilson)

Without behavior, no production. The same can be said about the safety in the workplace, attendance and punctuality, quality and improving health in the workplace. Behavior is the keyword. Because in business there are so many behaviors going on it is important to pinpoint those behaviors which directly affect the outcome of your business(process). Those behaviors must support the goal and mission of the firm. The process of pinpointing behavior is a process done by the manager in cooperation with the employee. Helpful questions are:

Which actions have to take place to become a excellent employee?

What shows the difference between a productive and a less productive employee? 

One more thing can be said about behavior: it is observable. You can see someone push a button or move the mouse. Because it is observable, you can correct it, count it, appraise it and therefore manage it. The ABC-model gives you one important instrument which helps you to manage behavior: consequences

Results vs behavior – In business managers mostly focus on results instead of behaviors; they manage results. But there is a big difference between those two. Behaviors are part of the throughput of a process while results are output. Therefore managing results is not always as effective as it might seem. 

Take for example a new employee who has to learn a lot about how to repair a bicycle. Doing his work he tries to fix the problems he encountered to best knowledge. The bicycles seems to be in perfect state when they reach the end of the assemblyline. The employee gets a friendly pat on his back for finishing the job. Everything seems to be OK. Except that the supervisor did not observe that the new employee uses his tools the wrong way and some different screws were used; which resulted in extra costs and time and a bad condition of the tools. A few examples and criteria for behaviors can be found behind this link

 Positive reinforcement, what happens to us – We discussed that antecedents prompt you to act in a certain way. This was followed by explaining that behavior is an important part of business. The third item of the ABC-model is consequence. Consequences are a powerful instrument for managers to use. They are also an instrument which is not used as frequently as it should or in a wrong way.

When a manager demonstrates what the worker needs to do, an antecedent strategy is being used (it’s an instruction which prompts the employee to a specific behavior). But when the worker is praised for the correct performance of the task, a consequence strategy is applied. The figure below illustrates the different types of consequences . The term reinforcement refers to the increasing of the likelihood that the behavior will be performed, or the intensity with which it is performed. 

Consequences – Positive reinforcement. This is a consequence that increases the possibility that (pinpointed) behavior will occur more frequently in the future. We can only speak of positive reinforcement when the rate or frequency of the behavior changes in a positive way. For example: praise, a bonus, ‘just giving attention’, a job rotation and working on a project, could be positive reinforcements. But remember different strokes for different folks. Individuals have preferences. Some people prefer a pat on the back accompanied by the words:”you did a fine job.” or  “the way you handled that customer was really excellent”. While others get reinforced by just an approving look or even a cynical remark.  

Negative reinforcement. This consequence also increases the likelihood that the behavior occurs again. In contrast to positive reinforcement frequently people behave in a certain way because they have to, not because they want to. They act to avoid a negative consequence, for example, being punished or getting chewed out by the boss. In issues like safety rules, negative reinforcement can be effective. Nevertheless, negative consequences are in general less desirable than positive ones. Still, they are frequently used by management. 

Punishment. When being punished the person gets something he/she doesn´t want. Punishment leads to fear and will stop the behavior continuing. Being chewed out after launching an idea regarding on how to optimize the business process, can inadvertently stop this behavior (to launch a new idea). Remember: different strokes for different folks; behavior must stop or decrease to be considered punishment.  

Extinction. In a meeting you try to bring forward a new idea. Nobody notices you; nobody gives you any attention. After a few minutes you try again. And again everybody ignores you. Maybe you will try once more but finally you end up by saying nothing -and not just at this meeting-. Ignoring involves withholding social reinforcement and results in the extinction of behavior. This situation occurs frequently in business when, for example, productive behavior is ignored. Many performance problems may be created, not by what we do, but by what we don’t do (Daniels, 1989). 

This in short, is the way consequences work. A good understanding of these principles can be very profitable to an organization. These principles can be used not only for managing behavior but also when developing a reward systems or conducting a performance appraisal.

Reinforcement -When tailoring a performance management program to an particular individual, the manager often attempts to utilize reinforcers (and punishers perhaps) that have proved effective for that particular individual in the past. Choosing the best reinforcer for an individual is not an easy task. To make it easier, here are some guidelines to help you. 

Personal:  the reinforcer must reflect your personal managing style and must be given in a personal way. Calling someone by his/her name, is one important criteria.

Sincere:  just reinforcing behavior because at a seminar you learnt how to do this, is not effective. It’s important that you mean what you say, and are not joking or being dishonest. In this case you can also put a question mark at the ‘employee of the month’-program. “Are you just the next in the row or is it a sincere recognition of your good performance this month?”

Specific: the receiver of a reinforcer must know exactly why he received a particular reinforcer. He or she has to know why he’s is being praised. Because behavior is clearly a complex, ongoing stream, the contingency between a behavior and the consequence may not be clear. Pinpoint therefore the behavior you, as a supervisor, liked.

Immediate: try to ‘caught somebody in the act.’ Reinforce while the employee is doing what you want. Do not wait until the next performance appraisal interview; the longer the time between the completion of a behavior and the delivery of a reinforcing consequence, the less effective the reinforcer will be.

Frequently: a general rule to comply with is the 4:1 rule. This means that every time you apply a negative consequence, you should find at least four opportunities somewhere in the work place to reinforce a desired performance.

Remember these guidelines the next time you are ‘Managing By Walking Around’ and make sure that you are not ‘Managing by Wandering Around’. Supplementary to the first guideline, personal, here are some helpful questions you can ask yourself for giving the proper social or tangible reinforcement (John N. Marr and Richard T. Roesler):  what topics does the person enjoy? what does the person do in his or her spare time? who are the workers friends on the job? what does the worker like to do during breaks? By just observing people you can learn a lot about which reinforcer is most suitable. In business this ‘observing’ is not done frequently. As Daniels (1994) defines this: Unfortunately, we are so busy telling people what we want that we have little time left to listen to what they want.  

Sense of responsibility – Of course people also have a sense of responsibility. Therefore you can expect that certain behaviors take place without giving any positive reinforcement. The problem is, however, that we tend to punish people when the routine behavior does not occur. This can result in a few undesirable side-effects.

Try to think back to the last time you positively reinforced behavior and then think back to the last time you pointed out that somebody did something wrong; which one do you remember most clearly? A lot of new and efficient (profitable) behaviors are reduced and even extinct this way. 

Another side-effect of punishment or extinction is the fact that individuals turn to alternative behaviors. Alternative behaviors which can negatively influence the environment you are in.  

A few examples of alternative behaviors to avoid punishment: 

Cheating avoiding punishment that goes with being wrong (a big problem in bureaucratic organizations)

Truancy avoiding or escaping getting the many punishments that go with getting to work. For example: being chewed out by the supervisor and embarrassment.

‘Sneaking’ avoiding being caught ‘misbehaving’. For example pretending to be working.

The following example will give a good idea of the fact that behavior itself can serve as a positive or negative consequence. One behavior follows the other (like a process), but what consequences does those behaviors have on each other? The Premack principle alias Grandma’s Law.

This section of the performance management homepage explained in short the way consequences effect business and our social life. Everything we do is depended on the consequences we experience. Although every individual experiences a particular reinforcement different, the laws of behavior are universal.


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