Focus on the Behaviors, Not the Number

Steven Cesare, Ph.D.

A landscaper from Pennsylvania called me the other day to discuss appropriate methods for coaching employees on how to achieve their work goals.   Being an avowed capitalist, my initial point on this topic surprised the landscaper.  In specific, I told her that as long as the employee knows the empirical goal (e.g., gross margin percentage, enhancements to maintenance contract ratio, DSO, job quality score, overtime to hours quotient, client retention), the feedback should focus exclusively on the behaviors the employee must perform to reach the specific goal, rather than the goal itself (i.e., 53% Gross Margin, 87 Job Quality Score, 92% Client Retention, 85% Annual Foreman Retention Rate).

The goal is not going to change.  So, why focus on it?  We already know the goal.

It’s not the number that is important.  It’s the actual behaviors that must be performed to reach the number that are important.

“But Steve, we have to get the number!  As a capitalist, you must certainly understand that!”

Of course, I do.  We all do.

As I explained to the Pennsylvania landscaper, if her employees achieved the goal through illegal, immoral, or unethical means, would she approve of their actions?  Without missing a beat, she forthrightly responded “No.”

Similarly, would she approve if her daughter cheated on collegiate exams, or paid someone to take a class for her, or contracted with a service to draft a term paper for her, in order to maintain a scholarship.  Again, the response was “No.”

We know the goal; we know the number; that is static information.  The behaviors are the dynamic variables that can be altered to produce differential productivity levels, eventuating in “best practices.”  Thus, let’s focus on coaching employees to consistently achieve those best practices.

For example, to achieve a goal of 45% gross margin on a landscape maintenance job, it would make sense to coach the following behaviors:  walk the job to ensure an accurate estimate, track crew hourly average wage, minimize wasted time through inefficient routing circles, have GPS on the company vehicles to see if the crew makes an unnecessary morning stops prior to reaching the first job site of the day, perform efficient job sequencing, have a current rotation map, have properly-maintained equipment and a fully- trained staff, minimize unnecessary materials costs (e.g., waste, on-call orders), never doing any unproductive work (i.e., walking to/from the truck empty-handed), and of course, no overtime.

If the Foreman failed to perform any of those duties, or did them inefficiently, it is likely that the goal would not be attained.  Thus, all related action plans, documentation, and coaching should focus exclusively on the correct behaviors and their proper execution, not the numerical goal.  The goal is not going to change.  But the behaviors, which are under the control of the employee (i.e., Foreman) can be improved due to better training, follow-up, and accountability.

We agree:  The goal is important!

That said, be a better coach by focusing the employee’s attention on how the right behaviors must be performed better, rather than just restating the urgency of “getting the number.”  

Focus on the behaviors, not the number.

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Steve Cesare Ph.D.

has more than 25 years of Human Resources experience. Prior to joining The Harvest Group, Steve worked with Bemus Landscape, Jack in the Box, the County of San Diego, Citicorp, and NASA. Steve earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Old Dominion University, and has authored 68 human resources journal articles. As a member of The Harvest Group, Steve’s areas of expertise include: staffing, legal compliance, wage and hour issues, training, and employee safety.  Read Steve's full bio.