After all the business plans have been drawn up, goals have been set and everybody in your team rolls up their sleeves to implement new strategies, there is something fundamentally human that often gets overlooked.
It’s a simple concept: rewarded behaviour is repeated. We try and push these rational, goal-driven behaviours in our organisations but fail to realise that we are completely undermining our own endeavours by rewarding some behaviours we should not.
An emerging problem that offices are facing is when workers who are clearly unwell and should stay away from the office, yet they still come in to do their daily duties – presenteeism. They do so under duress, they do so at a reduced productivity, but they do it because there is a reward.
Usually the reward is an intrinsic sense of achievement, battling on beyond the adversity and pushing through when others would give up. Workplaces also reward this behaviour. Turning up to work when you’re sick means you maintain your cache of sick days. The negative impact of increasing the chance of others getting sick, and possibly making mistakes due to overall impairment tend to have delayed effects. The immediate effect is one of admiration from colleagues and bosses.
We need to be sensible here. Health should always trump work when the two demands compete with each other. Working through this head cold or coming back too early might mean others get sick, or you get sick again in a relapse. It seems admirable on the surface but it’s not a good outcome. Unfortunately workplaces reward presenteeism and some places report ridicule and condescension of those that do take sick days.
2. ‘Safe’ operation
Safe operation sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? The kind of safe options I’m talking about are staying rigidly within the confines of your role and responsibilities. It means not taking the chance of disagreeing in a meeting, or coming up with ideas. If being outspoken is punished then conversely staying silent is rewarded. Ideally you want your staff members to have the confidence to contribute.
This is a symptom of a really toxic workplace. If you notice this is happening then you need to consider it a bright red flag. This is a precursor to an individualistic workplace – one in which everyone is looking out for their own needs without any regard for the needs of their co-workers or the organisation. It is survival mode, and often reinforced heavily by management.
3. Ruthless behaviour
Is ruthlessness a good trait to have in business? It’s a matter of opinion, but ask yourself who gets promoted in your organisation? Is it the person that steadfastly does their job to an extremely high standard? Or it is the person who ruthlessly undermines colleagues to put him/herself ahead of others at appraisal time?
So often in organisations it is the ruthless, cutthroat, competitive behaviour that is rewarded with promotions, pay rises and good favour from senior management. Most of the time it isn’t deliberate, but you need to think of the flow-on effect. If you reward ruthlessness and politicking and put those people in leadership positions it quickly becomes the culture of an organisation.
Instead, imagine an organisation where people are promoted on the basis of how well they help those around them to perform better. Rewarding true leadership and collaborative work instead of competition? Career progression is one of the biggest motivators in a workplace, and everyone who strives for a promotion and sees it awarded to someone else becomes quite demotivated for a period of time.
4. Superficial efficiency
How good is it when someone responds immediately to an email? It helps you get the answer you need to progress with whatever you’re working on. If you’re nice enough and have the time you’ll probably thank them for such a quick response. What is the effect here?
For someone to respond immediately to all emails as they arrive they need to be constantly checking their inbox. If someone constantly checks their inbox then their ability to think deeply and carefully on their project work becomes compromised. Without meaning to, you may have just reinforced superficial efficiency.
This is not necessarily a bad thing – there is nothing more frustrating than waiting for responses from people when you are trying to meet a deadline. But there is a set of side effects that comes with praising and rewarding those who fire back emails immediately. As a manager you might need to take hold of this. Perhaps you can tell your team that you’re okay with them turning off email alerts for an hour or two as required, and to play down the importance of small tasks and increase the reward for people that COMPLETE the bigger picture items. It’s a balance of big and small acknowledgements and rewards.
Workplace cultures are really a set of behaviours that are considered normal and acceptable. The social effect of the group can have people acting in ways that really clash with the individual’s morals and values. The kind of intolerance I’m referring to here is sexism, racism and other forms of marginalisation that should have no place in an office, but are sadly quite common. If you witness this behaviour, perhaps it’s a pair of managers joking around in a sexist manner and you chuckle along in an inadvertent attempt to win favour, then you are actually rewarding intolerance.
It often happens that when someone who is new to the organisation is feeling a little timid, their priority is feeling the security of fitting in to the new social arrangement. This can lead to a compromise of values, expressed by not speaking up against actions that the person finds offensive but doesn’t feel they have the social clout to act on.
Not all of the behaviours listed are definitively bad – but they are behaviours that are regularly reinforced by entire organisations due to not identifying the behaviour/reward pairings that occur. Culture is the collective understanding of which behaviours are acceptable and which aren’t. Being mindful of which behaviours are being encouraged and which are being punished can open the door to dramatic culture shift in organisations that need it.
Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.