Understanding "Complex Behaviors" to Improve Performance

April 21, 2017

Understanding "Complex Behaviors" to Improve Performance

Whether it’s personalized employee performance advice, or simply making the most of what we have, HR always seem to hear the same thing: How can we boost employee performance? 

Research from the CEB ​Corporate Leadership Council on how to increase employee performance​ can help us understand how to empower employees to be high performers. Thankfully, there’s no big software rollout, or all-company initiative required for you to apply this research, just some really helpful advice on improving performance through an understanding of “complex behavior,” and what’s needed to change it.

“[On-the-job learning] is more effective than other learning methods for driving complex behavior change”

Many studies seeking to boost individual performance measure simple tasks carried out on various participants; from university students to regular employees. The tasks could be anything from stacking blocks to simple games. The problem, obviously, is that it just doesn’t reflect how we really work because of the lack of complexity, especially not in the corporate world, where there’s often no right answer or clear link to input and output. There’s no equivalent of stacking a block equaling success.

Complex behavior, as defined by the CEB study, includes usual, expected employee habits like collaboration, decision-making, and the inherent need to adapt to new changes. 

An example of a complex behavior or task in action might be a project to create a strategic plan to improve marketing efforts in Asia. The employee’s line manager reviews the report, only to find that it lacks detail and doesn’t really show the reasoning that leads to the recommendations made in the report.

Oftentimes, managers are too afraid to give that feedback.

Even the 40 percent who say they do give feedback might simply tell the employee their thoughts. For example, saying something like, “The report lacked detail. Can you put more effort into showing your working next time?” might seem ample, but what the CEB study shows, is that’s not how employees learn.

So how can we boost employee performance when it comes to complex tasks? The CEB ​Corporate Leadership Council recommends the use of learning goals. “[On-the-job learning] is more effective than other learning methods for driving complex behavior change” (​Davache, Kiefer, Rock, & Rock, 2010).

We should address the complexity from the beginning rather than leaving it for the feedback process. The framework for effective, on-the-job learning created by CEB’s Corporate Leadership Council is as follows: Exposure + Extraction leads to Application which leads to Performance.

Employees need exposure to learning opportunities and to be able to extract the learning before they can apply it. Only then will performance gains be seen.

What you can help management understand is that performance is an end result, but it’s not directly in their control. An example is that when a team wins the Super Bowl, fans take to the streets to celebrate. However, taking to the streets and celebrating preemptively won’t guarantee a team a win.

When it comes to complex behaviors, what managers can ​actually​ control is an employee’s exposure and extraction to the behaviors they lack. Exposure and extraction are two big elements of learning goals.

The Exposure and Extraction Components.

As the champions of learning goals, you, the HR leader can help your company create a culture of coaching, which strives to​ expose employees to the behaviors you need.​       

In our previous example of an employee whose reports lacks detail, exposure might include having them sit in on a meeting with senior leadership, the people who use the report’s recommendations to make decisions, in order to expose the employee the type of questions— and therefore detail—that senior leaders and the organization require.

It might also be an idea to show the employee reports or recommendations that senior leadership have previously approved, to expose the employee even further to behaviors of success. According to CEB’s Corporate Leadership Council, exposure to the opportunities of learning on the job accounts for 25 percent of an individual’s ability to apply these new skills or knowledge to future work performance. The largest gains are then achieved during “extraction.”

Extraction,​ or identifying specific learning goals, accounts for the remaining 75 percent of an individual’s ability to apply new skills or knowledge acquired to future work performance— making it the most important component you can influence. To improve the detail-lacking report writer’s extraction, it might be an idea to have them take a log of the leadership meeting’s key questions from other reports, and to analyze prior successful reports, extracting their learning into a report template or checklist for future employees. The key is to coach the employee toward self-learning, to understand what is required in their own terms. 

Because extraction accounts for such a huge improvement in performance, a few specific “learning tasks” are well worth the time investment in the long term, especially when helping an existing employee to achieve more. “High application [of learning goals on the job] leads to 30 percent performance improvement (CEB Corporate Leadership Council, 2004).

Putting It All Together

When you step back from the scientific sounding exposure and extraction what you actually see is a time-tested methodology that bears a lot of resemblance to training a new employee. 

Training programs take new employees who may not have ever worked in a similar culture or company and exposing them to serious decision-making via small tasks like notetaking and extraction tasks like report writing or framework creation.

By giving them a driver’s seat view, companies accelerate great talent up the ranks in record time, often over just a few years. It’s time for managers to apply that same thinking to existing employees.  We need to curb our natural desire to ​remove work from underperformers’ plates under the auspices of allowing them to “focus,” and perhaps need to embrace a culture of coaching. 

Champion a culture of coaching for everyone. Take action by helping your team set concrete learning goals so that the challenge of each task is being addressed at the very beginning, rather than after individuals underperform.


The Authors: 

Wendy Pat Fong is director of talent and operations at 7Geese, a social performance management software that empowers employees to better achieve goals, get recognized, and receive continuous feedback in an engaging social environment using OKRs. She can be reached at wendy@7geese.com.