Kim Ades is an EO Accelerator participant from Toronto and the president and founder of Frame of Mind Coaching, helping clients reach new levels of success in both their professional and personal lives. EO Accelerator, a program run by the Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO), enables early stage entrepreneurs to catapult their companies and empowers them with tools for aggressive business growth. Kim offers up her thoughts on effective ways to condition your employees to perform at the highest levels.

Even though a lot of time has passed, I remember the Behavioral Psychology class I took in university like it was yesterday. The bulk of the curriculum was focused on learning methods of behavioral conditioning through rat experiments.

There were three primary conditioning strategies:

  • Positive reinforcement
  • Negative reinforcement
  • Aversive conditioning

We learned that "reinforcement" refers to a type of conditioning that teaches and maintains a specific behavior, and "aversive" refers to a type of conditioning that prevents a specific behavior from happening. Positive reinforcement here meant that each time a rat pushed a lever in its cage, it would receive a pellet of food. In essence, the rat would get rewarded for its lever-pushing behavior. For negative reinforcement, it would receive an electric shock as a punishment if he took too long to push the lever, causing him to keep pushing the lever to avoid the shock.

In both cases, the rat demonstrated the desired behavior and kept pushing the lever. And even when the reward and punishment were randomly delivered, the rat continued to exhibit the behavior. When the reward or punishment eventually ceased, the rat learned not to press the lever at all.

In another case, the rat received a shock each time it pushed the lever, so it quickly learned to stay away from the lever altogether. It became averse to pushing the lever and did not touch the lever even when the electric shock treatment ceased.

Conditioning Employees

What does this have to do with leadership? Often, leaders inadvertently use one of these types of conditioning to teach their team members how to behave.

A leader might lose their temper when a mistake is made, teaching their team members to avoid any type of risk that may lead to a mistake (a.k.a. aversive conditioning). By the same token, a leader may write someone up if they are under-performing, causing the employee to shape up out of fear and ultimately, prevent them from giving their absolute best (a.k.a. negative reinforcement).

One might think that positive reinforcement is the best way to go, rewarding desired behavior. However, even that strategy has its limitations. Leaders who use this approach find that employees who are motivated by external rewards only perform well as long as the rewards keep coming. It is not uncommon for their employees to abandon ship when the water gets rough.

Make Their Success Possible

So what kind of conditioning is recommended, then? How do we get our employees to demonstrate desirable behavior?  By conditioning them to build their personal efficacy. How do we do this? By coaching them using these seven steps:

  1. Help them identify the goals that they are seeking to achieve.
  2. Help them outline the behaviors that will ultimately lead to their success.
  3. Help them address any limiting beliefs or thought patterns that may get in their way.
  4. Be on-hand to help them when they get stuck.
  5. Detach yourself from the outcome.
  6. Get out of their way.
  7. Help them celebrate their success.

This method of conditioning removes both the reward and the punishment from the equation. In fact, it completely removes the need for the leader's approval and invites the employee to step up and manage their own behaviors and develop their own leadership skills.

How amazing would it be if we, as leaders, didn't have to monitor or manage the behaviors of our team members and instead gave them space to show up as leaders? It would be pretty fantastic - and it's doable when great leaders are also great coaches.