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Using Psychological Learning Principles to Motivate Your Team

Motivating employees is, in a word, complicated—especially in the modern world. I can’t tell you how often in my work as a performance coach I deal with business owners who are frustrated by their inability to properly motivate their employees to perform and to adhere to their company’s culture. The generation gap is often labeled as the culprit, but in essence, it all comes down to communication—or lack thereof. Good communication leads to good results, but good communication isn’t that easy to execute.

As a business coach, I’ve found that feedback—that catch-all corporate term—is the only way most leaders know how to motivate. A recent Harvard Business Review article shares research suggesting that simply telling people what we think of their performance and how they can do it better doesn’t work. For one, we’re not always reliable raters. And believe it or not, criticism inhibits the brain’s ability to learn. Criticism levied at the right time can be effective, but every time is not the right time.

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So how does one effectively use feedback to motivate? Get back to basics—psychology basics. To understand your employees and get them to do what you want, you need to know how they think. The following psychological principles of learning can offer guidance.

Recognize and Reinforce

Instead of telling employees what they are doing wrong, try telling them what they are doing right. Identify the right behaviors, then look for them. When you “catch” an employee doing a good job, praise them. Positive reinforcement is an incredibly powerful tool and we all need it regardless of our age.

Timing Is Essential

When you are teaching a behavior, you must use reinforcement to shape the nuances of the behavior. This is where timing matters most. Once your employees have achieved the desired behavior, you should still reinforce it—you just have to be less predictable about it. Put these employees on an intermittent reinforcement schedule to keep them wanting more. It’s like a slot machine in Vegas. If you lost your money every time you pulled the lever, you’d stop playing. But that one successful pull? That’s what keeps people coming back for more.

Consequences Control Behavior

Employees that are positively reinforced will likely engage in the same behavior again. Reinforcement strengthens and maintains a behavior. Reinforcement can also be used to eliminate poor or unwanted behaviors. Again, think about a child who’s starved for attention and acting up. Ignoring that child will eventually stop them from making a scene every time they want to be heard. Similarly, ignoring unwanted behaviors (when coupled with reinforcing positive ones) will eventually eliminate those unwanted behaviors in your employees.

Identify What Matters

One of the biggest mistakes that leaders make is not taking the time to find out what matters to their employees. Each individual’s definition of what reinforces them may be different. “Compensation” might not mean the same thing to you as it does to your employees. Some people desire self-satisfaction (like positive reinforcement) and some prefer external motivators. Find out how your employees prefer to be rewarded before you reward them. Try giving them choices—like more time off, a raise, a title change, etc.—and see what they say.

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Social Learning Theory

We learn more by observing and modeling behavior than anything else. We adopt model behavior if we value the person doing it. Employees that respect you will want to do the things that you do, the way you do them.  This is why mentoring is such a powerful learning technique. Show your employees how you work instead of telling them.

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Complex Behavior Is Simple Behaviors Combined

You can’t explain all of your company’s procedures and culture in an employee handbook that ends up collecting dust after day one on the job. How you do things may be complex, but how you do things is essentially a combination of smaller, simpler behaviors. Break down the individual parts of the performance you want and teach them one at a time. Before long, all the parts will come together.

Motivating your employees is never easy, but it’s not because they’re lazy or disinterested. It’s because you haven’t struck the right cord to stimulate their personalities. Using the psychology basics above will help you get in tune with your employees—and ultimately help you boost your company’s bottom line.

Looking to motivate your team but not sure where to start? Contact FPMG today to schedule a consultation with our experienced business performance coach

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