Business and financial objectives, while essential for any organization, can distract executives from their true leadership mission: ensuring that the people who make up the organization perform at their best. Leaders must focus on leading people; numerical objectives are achieved naturally as a result of this leadership.
The need for CBOs
Staff engagement and positive workplace behaviors are essential to any company’s success, CEOs should reinvent themselves as CBOs: chief behavioral officers. As Sir Ken Robinson noted in his renowned TED Talk, the true role of leadership is not about command and control, but climate control. CBOs create environments that allow people to thrive, facilitating high performance from every employee and every team. When the right conditions are created, the impossible becomes possible.
Dean Newman takes this one step further. He characterizes the CBO as an “experience designer”—someone who applies best practices from the world of customer experience to achieve great employee experiences. CBOs design organizational structures, organizational climate, team and individual incentives, and the overall culture of the company. Trust, safety, permission to innovate and fast-fail, incentives that reward sharing across units and functions—these are just a few examples of the levers used by CBOs to optimize the employee experience.
Why does the business world need CBOs? Across sectors and countries, study after study shows that employee engagement is too low. For example, Gallup finds that only about 15% of employees worldwide are fully engaged in their jobs, and even in the countries with the highest engagement this figure is only 35%. This means that the vast majority of employees are partially engaged or actively disengaged from their work. The CBO’s mission is to ensure that the proper conditions are in place to engage employees, enabling them to innovate, to work autonomously and to develop and use their strengths to the fullest degree.
Beyond focusing on individual behavior and decision making, leaders as CBOs need to focus on developing a work climate that maximizes employee performance.
Tools for increasing employee engagement
Positive leadership can boost employee engagement and performance with three very powerful tools:
- Training mindware. Psychology and behavioral studies have given us mechanisms that can help people understand their own thinking processes and train themselves to think and make decisions with much higher quality — but without adding much time. People’s mindware—the mental processes that direct behavior and thinking — can be trained and developed to help them do their jobs better. One example is the practice of mindfulness, which offers employees a practical way to train themselves to better manage their attention — a critical component that we use in every meeting, conversation, or task. The work of the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman sheds light on the many “biases” that we have in thinking and decision making. Techniques from behavioral decision making can help employees learn to use higher-quality ways of reasoning and making their decisions.
- Cultivating positive environments. We know that employee well-being is associated with better results for the organization. And hard science shows clearly that our mindware works better when our daily ratio of positive to negative emotions is high. Beyond focusing on individual behavior and decision making, leaders as CBOs need to focus on developing a work climate that maximizes employee performance. To create a positive environment, the ‘emotional aspects of employees’ day-to-day circumstances must be addressed, with an eye to reducing negativity and boosting positivity. By measuring positive and negative emotions over time using simple questionnaires, the company can determine the prevailing level of positivity or negativity in each team or unit. Negative emotions have at least twice as much impact on people psychologically as positive emotions. Simple actions —redesigning meetings, learning to lead inquiry-based dialogue, and communicating more transparently — can encourage positive emotions to flourish. Talent development and training make people more passionate and more likely to seek out new challenges.
- Behavioral fitness training. Regions of the brain associated with reward-based learning are responsible for automating behaviors — “wiring-in” both our good and bad habits. So changing unproductive workplace behaviors can be very difficult. Like a physical fitness program we might pursue to help us get in better physical form, behavioral fitness is a paradigm for helping employees to identify the “behavioral muscles” to be trained and it provides neuroscience-based techniques for training carrying out this training. Using the workplace as a kind of “behavioral gym,” employees work on retuning unproductive behaviors: listening more actively, being more open-minded, being more structured in speaking and communicating, or being more patient in team contexts. Drawing on the neuroscience of habits, Dean Newman presented a framework called “Habit Hacking” that provides a structured and gamified way for people to increase the chances of succeeding in their behavior-change goals.
These tips can help business executives to increase employee engagement and exercise positive leadership. As staff performance improves, so will the company’s bottom line.
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