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Tips for understanding behavior in employees


The world of business management is not all about cash flow, spreadsheets, and marketing, there is the tricky business of human behavior that must be attended to. Most business managers who studied management in school spent a lot more time in accounting and economics class than they did in psychology class and sometimes human behavior can be quite a mystery. Here are a couple of tips to help you understand the behavior of your employees.

Employees are "trainable"-at one level, humans are just animals and our behaviors can be understood as a series of stimulus and response patterns. At a very basic level, we repeat behaviors that have worked for us in the past and fail to repeat behaviors that have not worked for us. This concept is called behaviorism and it says that when employees are rewarded for good behavior, they will repeat the behavior. In a bad job, the only reward an employee gets is a paycheck and he or she will do as little as possible to keep getting that reward. In a good job, there are constant rewards; even praise can be considered a motivating reward that encourages good behavior.


An interesting thing to note about behaviorism is that punishment is only used to reduce behavior. If you want any sort of behavior to increase, you need to reward the behavior, not punish a person for lack of it. For example, if you want an employee to clean up their area at the end of the shift, punishment for not cleaning will not instill the behavior (although it might work for a while). If you truly want to change behavior, you need to give a reward for cleaning the area. This doesn't mean you need to follow your employee's around throwing treats all day long. The reward can be, "as soon as your area is cleaned, you can go home". If going home is rewarding, that will soon become associated with cleaning the area. You don't want to get in the habit of treating employees like pets, but it is good to understand the basic nature of human behavior and how reinforcement works.

Employees need to feel empowered-big behavior problems can result from employees feeling powerless in their roles. Feeling powerless can manifest itself in different ways with different employees; some will take a passive aggressive stance, gaining power by what they don't do rather than what they do do. Other employees might respond to feelings of powerlessness by more aggressive means, like gossiping and badmouthing the company. Still others might take out the feelings on subordinates or even on their customers.

To help your employees feel empowered, they should have a say in setting their own goals and they should always be treated with dignity and respect. Another way to empower your employee is to support the employee in a public situation. If they make a decision, do not usurp their power by correcting them in public (of course, there are exceptions to this rule) instead, support the decision and then discuss other options later, in private. Empowered employees make great employees; underpowered employees make bitter enemies that are hard to deal with.

Understand cultural differences-human behavior is largely influenced by culture. If you find that you don't understand the behavior of an employee, you might want to consider the cultural background of the employee. As a manager, you should educate yourself, learning what you can about the person's cultural heritage. In some Asian cultures, people are encouraged never to offer an opinion unless they are asked. If you have an employee with a similar background, you might need to ask for feedback more than you would from an American who values individual opinion and freedom of speech.

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