Leadership Behaviors and Employee Engagement

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Note: This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of Behavior Analysis Quarterly Vol. 2(2).

By Manny Rodriguez, M.S.

Vice President, ABA Technologies, Inc.

Leadership evolves with new technology, with the introduction of new organizations, and with the changing rules of engagement (e.g., federal laws and international trade regulations). Leadership continues to be part of academic and organizational training curricula and strategic imperatives. Even investors are looking for the “right” leadership to navigate their organizations’ mission and vision. The field of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) has also contributed to the study of leadership. Although some would say leadership is an ambiguous construct, others would argue it is indeed an observable and measurable set of behaviors, resulting in those in leadership positions being labeled as “good” or “effective” leaders or “bad” or “ineffective” leaders.

Leadership is important in the area of behavior change. Whether the leader is an executive of a Fortune 500 company, the principal of a school, the director or owner of a human service organization, a volunteer manager for a non-for profit organization, or a parent of a child, the “leader” plays an important role in influencing behavior. In turn, when socially significant behavior change is of interest, the leader holds a responsibility to act to make such change happen in a sustainable fashion. For the practitioner and researcher, understanding and influencing leadership can be the very differentiator between short-term and sustainable change.

An Operant Theory of Leadership

A few pioneers have studied leadership behaviors, providing a wealth of thoughtful conclusions gleaned from a behavior analytic point of view. One individual is Dr. Thomas Mawhinney, who described and experimentally demonstrated the main tenets of an operant theory of effective leadership (Mawhinney, 2006). Mawhinney offered an operant definition of leadership as “operant behavior of one person that effects a change in the context of the operant behavior of one or more other persons and thereby changes or maintains the other [person or] persons’ operant behavior” (Mawhinney, 2001, p.204).

Mawhinney’s (2006) work involved looking at contingencies between leaders and employees. He further characterized leadership as “involving problem solving operant behavior” (Mawhinney, 2006, page 52). The role of leadership in any context is designed to “fill the gaps in formal information and reward systems because they can be highly flexible compared to static [procedures], rules and regulations that typically lag the pace of change” (Mawhinney, 2006, page 44).

As Mawhinney (2006) eloquently described, “if leadership is to refer to a relationship that involves ongoing interactions between the leader and follower, their relationship must arise from and be ultimately maintained by contingencies of mutual reinforcement within which leader and follower engage in repeated interaction episodes” (Mawhinney, 2006, page 46).

In addition to Mawhinney’s work, Dr. Judi Komaki has written a number of research studies (1982, 1986, and 2011) on the subject of leadership, and her published work Leadership from and Operant Perspective (1998) can be described as a landmark piece of literature applying behavior analytic principles to the subject. Komaki’s “Model of Effective Supervision” highlights how effective leaders provide contingent consequences and are able to do so because they take an active role in monitoring behavior more than their counter parts, a.k.a., ineffective leaders. Leadership from an Operant Perspective provides a great amount of research on leadership with regards to methodology and data handling processes such as measurement, reliability, triangulation, and so forth. One of the main contributions of Komaki’s work is the “Operant Model of Effective Supervision” (Komaki ,1998). The “Operant Model of Effective Supervision” seeks to identify what effective leaders really need to do to motivate others. As Komaki, et al. (2011), described “the model focuses on what occurs after the performance of the worker,” building on the research of operant conditioning (Komaki, et. al., 2011, page 238. In addition, the model has shown that “antecedents have been relegated to a secondary role” (Komaki, et. al., 2011, page 239). Neither the quantity nor quality of antecedents such as speeches and memos was predictive of exemplary leaders (Komaki, 1998).

Leadership and Culture

Leadership behavior is not performed in a vacuum. Other factors press upon the leader and influence what behaviors result. One factor that influences leadership is culture. Culture comes in many varieties, but the concern here is with organization’s own culture, which has been defined as “the way we do things around here” (Karpfl & Kruja, 2015, page 36). For the OBM practitioner, is it important to understand the broader culture of the organization, what influences and impacts this culture, and how these cultural practices will support or hinder how leaders motivate others. From the customers, to the stakeholders, to the employees themselves, culture is a complicated phenomenon and must be taken into account to truly maximize leadership behaviors to motivate others.

The way an organization operates, or “[does] things around here,” is bolstered by two leadership tasks. First, staffing is of concern in supporting organizational culture. Krapfl and Kruja (2015) explained that proper employee screening for “fit” can be helpful, as can corrective actions for current employees who do not support the organization. Ultimately, some employees must be let go if they are found to degrade the organization’s cultural milieu. Secondly, trust, reliability, and contiguity of relationships all play a role in building a positive and well-maintained culture. Failure to perform or to fit, the shirking of responsibilities and duties—all of these things must be addressed directly and not allowed to fester. Leadership failure in these circumstances will produce a different kind of culture.

Josh Bersin (2015) identified five elements, supported by 20 underlying and interrelated strategies, which work to drive employee engagement. The five major elements Bersin illustrates are:

1. Make work meaningful

2. Hands-on management

3. Positive work environment

4. Growth opportunity

5. Trust in leadership

Bersin’s research is broad, but can be useful in the context of looking at how leadership behaviors can and should be focused towards motivating or influencing the behaviors of others. The second element, hands-on leadership, is closely related to Mawhinney’s and Komaki’s work, which the fifth element, trust in leadership, is more closely linked to the work of Krapfl and Kruja. In brief, hands-on management asks leadership to guide, support, and engage their people through a variety of activities such as goal-setting. Bersin (2015) provides an example using the organization Google. Google uses an agile goal-setting process called O.K.R. (objectives and key results), which was originally developed at Intel. The process is simple and effective, ensuring each individual (from CEO to the customer service representative) sets ambitious and measurable objectives and are asked to define “key results” that monitor their progress. For Google, this creates alignment— employees can see who is dependent on their work, and people feel comfortable that they know what to do, they see what others are working on, and the measurement of their performance is clear of this. Hands-on management requires clear, transparent goals, coaching, investing in developing managers/supervisors, and performance management. As for trust in leadership, Bersin suggests it is perhaps the most important element. Bersin’s research suggest four strategies most directly impacting employee engagement: mission and purpose, continuing investment in people, transparent and honesty, and inspiration. Bersin provides examples such as how pharmaceutical companies are redefining themselves as wellness companies; retailers are redefining themselves as places for healthy food; tech companies define themselves as businesses to help people obtain information. Bersin also provides the example of Whole Foods, which is going so far as to release every employee’s total salary and bonuses from the previous year in its annual wage disclosure report. If employees are concerned about their compensation, they are encouraged to make an appointment with HR to discuss their issues. These specific actions leadership takes to drive employee engagement is yielding positive reactions from the employees in the form of “trust.”

Employee Engagement Requires Leadership

Aubrey and James Daniels’ 2007 book, Measure of a Leader, defines the true measure of a leader as the results achieved through the behavior of the people who follow that leader. Poor leadership is seen in various forms such as a lack of direction from senior team members, inadequate resources being provided, and lack of feedback. All of these forms can have devastating effects on employee motivation and work engagement. Daniels and Daniels (2006) described four criteria of followers’ behaviors to look for, each of which can be used to evaluate employee engagement in the context of leadership behaviors:

1. Followers deliver discretionary behavior directed toward the leader’s goals.

2. Followers make sacrifices for the leader’s cause.

3. Followers reinforce or correct others so that they also conform to the leader’s teachings.

4. Followers set guidelines for their own personal behavior based on what the leader would approve.

In closing

When all is said and done, leaders are important in the context of organizational behavior. The

leader is simply an individual who behaves in a certain way to encourage the behavior of others. The intent for most is to encourage positive behavior—work performance, healthy eating, studying in school, playing nice with others, and so on. In the field of OBM, practitioners and researchers alike have proven time and time again the powerful influence leaders have on employee behavior. Saying or doing the “right” thing accelerates performance, improves employee satisfaction, and drives the overarching culture in a positive way. In summary, the hope is BAQ readers take away the following when it comes to leaders, as the assumption is BAQ readers serve a leadership role in one capacity or another.

Takeaway 1. Leaders’ time should be spent on how they provide consequences to desired behavior

Takeaway 2. Leaders role is to problem-solve. Leaders should be flexible, and solve problems which will help others be successful.

Takeaway 3. Be a hands-on leader by focusing on providing clear, transparent goals; coaching, investing in developing others, and using modern day performance management.

Takeaway 4. To be a trust worthy leader, provide a clear mission and purpose, continue to investment in people, be transparent and honest with others, and seek to inspire others to excel.

Takeaway 5. Measure your behavior by focusing on the behaviors of those you lead. It is important to understand the impact you have versus your intention. 

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