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How to Maximize Employee Performance

Many leaders believe that their team's performance is tied to their personal and professional success, but few actually are bringing out the best in their employees on a daily basis. Too often, leaders treat employees like light bulbs. When they aren't working well leaders look to replace them. In today's volatile and complex employee-driven marketplace, a failure to maximize employee performance is a costly mistake. Perhaps you've set out to improve employee performance but then quickly got absorbed into other tasks. Or maybe you've attempted to start being more consistent with reinforcing employee performance, but now your employees are working remotely, and you have lost momentum. If so, you are not alone. Without the right tools, maximizing employee performance is one of the more problematic habits to establish.

Your workplace is perfectly designed to get the results you are achieving. Performance reinforcement can be daunting for leaders, from not having the time to feeling lost about where to begin. But you can change that. There is a tremendous value that comes from getting intentional about reinforcing employee performance. It doesn't have to be a complicated performance management process that involves a form from human resources.

Tips and Tools to Improve Employee Performance

The following tips and tools will get you started down the right path.

1. Understanding employee performance.

You don't need to have to be a subject matter expert in performance management. Still, you need to understand the basics and realize that there is a science to employee performance. The ABC model, also known as the three-contingency performance management model, provides a foundational understanding of performance. The "A" standards for those things that prompt desired behavior (antecedents). You probably guessed the "B" stands for the desired behavior. The "C" stands for consequences that have the most significant impact on an employee's performance. Consequences can be positive or negative as experienced by the employee. Consequences that the employee experiences after (within a few seconds of performing) or during the behavior have the greatest impact on the employee's behavior.

2. Get to know your employees.

Here is a not-so-shocking revelation. Employees are not all the same. What one employee chooses to do with their time and money outside of work is likely different from how another spends their time and money. Get curious about what your employees find motivating. Although motivators are not always good reinforcers, it is helpful to understand. You may find it helpful to create a reinforcement survey for your team or incorporate some intentional time with your direct reports to learn about their life outside of work.

3. Analyze the consequences of the work.

Don't assume what is positive or negative to you is positive or negative to your employees. Pick a behavior you need to improve. Find out what prompts exist already for the desired behavior as well as the consequences your employees experience when performing the desired behavior. If you are wondering why an employee would do something that appears to have negative consequences, there are likely positive, certain, and immediate consequences associated with the undesired behavior. I call this the jelly donut effect. Jelly donuts are not helpful for improving weight loss and cholesterol. However, they taste great, and that is one positive immediate certain reason people who need to lose weight and control their cholesterol choose to eat jelly donuts. The following video from The Big Bang Theory is a more light-hearted look at the role of positive and negative consequences and their influence on behavior.

4. Observe, learn, and adjust.

When possible, observe and eliminate or modify the negative, immediate, certain consequences associated with the desired behavior. If employees that prefer warmth have to work in a freezer, you can provide warming jackets to reduce the negative of the cold. If you have employees that like to watch Friends reruns, you can surprise them by giving them a year of episodes when they perform the desired behavior. After you attempt to reinforce the behavior, observe if performance improves for the desired behavior. If not, learn and adjust. Positive and negative consequences sit on separate sides of a scale. When you apply enough consequences one way or the other, you will see a change in performance.

As you get intentional with applying reinforcement to improve employee performance, keep in mind the following three rules:

  1. It’s best to apply positive reinforcement for the desired behavior than negative reinforcement for the undesired behaviors in most situations. Reinforcement is not about what you would want but what others would want.

  2. Adults prefer variety, and it is essential to provide variety with reinforcement.

  3. Over time even those things we love can lose their value/desire.

For many leaders, improving team performance can be challenging and complicated. But it doesn't have to be. By incorporating these tips, you can learn to look at performance improvement as an experiment that can take as little as a few minutes each day. Applying some structure can help you gain the most traction with the least effort when you are pulled in multiple directions and have numerous meetings. The benefits you will reap are both personal and professional as you help others grow and succeed.

Which tip do you need to work on now? Do you have an employee performance challenge you are unable to solve on your own?

If you are interested in learning more about this topic I would recommend you read Bringing Out The Best In People by Aubrey Daniels.

If you are looking for executive coaching or need organizational performance consulting, we're ready to partner with you to craft a solution specific to your organization's context and challenges. Getting started is as easy as visiting or contacting us via email Organizational Talent Consulting utilizes proven, simple, and transformational personal and organizational development solutions to help our clients learn, change, and apply tools in ways that benefit their unique needs and corporate culture.


Daniels, A. C., & Daniels, J. E. (2006). Performance management: Changing behavior that drives organizational effectiveness. Atlanta, Ga: Performance Management Publications.


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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