Facilitating Street-Smart Performance

By Mark Isabella

 Mark Isabella, creator of  Engagement Emergency  card deck

Mark Isabella, creator of Engagement Emergency card deck

For most of my life I’ve been a serial jaywalker. I completely ignore crosswalks and traffic lights, rushing off of street corners and dodging oncoming cars.  It’s a bad habit—and a dangerous one.  And it ignores the fact that I’m not only placing myself in harm’s way, but also endangering drivers and other pedestrians.

When managers ask me to work with their teams, they most often want me to address task issues—problems with the quality, quantity, cost, and timeliness of their employees’ work.  I often discover, however, that conduct issues—including chronic attendance problems, uncooperative behavior, and rudeness—are more significantly affecting the team’s performance.

Like jaywalking, these behaviors seem small, but can have a big impact.  Just as I failed to recognize the dangers of jaywalking, team leaders often overlook or underestimate the seriousness of their teams’ conduct problems.

Thankfully, a visit to Cincinnati, Ohio helped me to recognize that awareness and behavioral change are possible if the right elements are in place.

On the first morning of my visit to the city, I crossed a downtown street against the light.  As I did so, I noticed that all of my fellow pedestrians remained on the sidewalk, patiently waiting for the light to change.  At every intersection, I witnessed the same lawful behavior repeated by large groups of people.

I needed to find the backstory:  Did the people of Cincinnati have a good reason for adopting this group norm?  Or were they just unusually compliant?  I initiated a series of conversations with residents to find out.

I learned that Cincinnati first implemented jaywalking laws way back in the 1920’s in response to a number of traffic deaths.  Decades later, citizens remained committed to pedestrian safety, motivated by past accidents and more recent tragedies.

“We take jaywalking seriously,” one woman told me.  “People who live here have experienced the pain of losing loved ones.”  She ended the conversation by urging me to comply with the city’s laws during my visit.  She also mentioned that police officers would issue me a citation if they caught me in the act.

The result: I remained on my best behavior for the rest of the trip. What initiated the change?  Peer influence played a major role, along with clear expectations, feedback on the impact of my actions, shared values, and knowledge of the consequences associated with rule violations.

I tell the Cincinnati story to my clients to demonstrate the importance of using these same elements to encourage healthy conduct within their teams.   These performance management tools will discourage employees from exhibiting jaywalking behaviors in the workplace.  At the very least, they will prompt team members to look both ways before they cross the street.   

Over time, the tools can change the nature of workplace conversations and habits.  When team members experience a safer and saner work environment, they begin to demonstrate a genuine commitment to functional conduct.  What was once an obligatory adherence to a set of rules becomes a series of mindful actions fueled by team pride, mutual care, and intelligent self-interest.

Questions for you to reflect on:

  1. What employee conduct behaviors do your clients report as being disruptive to their day-to-day operations?
  2. To what degree do your clients make use of expectations, feedback, peer influence, core values, and the application of consequences as part of their management systems?
  3. What can you do to encourage your clients to recommit to using these fundamental aspects of performance management?