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Giving orders

It’s so simple

“If people only did what I told them the world would be a lot simpler.”
Many of us will have heard similar phrases over and over again.

You could (very) loosely argue that, for some managers, this is their whole basis for setting objectives.
Unfortunately, people have a nasty habit of not doing what they are told.

So what happens? We tell them again and again until frustrations build up and other sanctions begin to be introduced.
Basically, people don’t like being told what to do.
Motivation can drop rapidly.
However, this may not be the only reason for poor performance.

  • They may not have understood the request
  • They may not be competent to carry out the task

People don’t always respond in the way you might like, even if the result could demonstrate improvement.
For example, exercise and a good diet, getting plenty of sleep may be great for you but not too many people can keep to such a strict regimen.

The antecedent

We know that behaviour consists of three basic parts (see common sense)

  1. The circumstances prior to the behaviour
  2. The behaviour itself
  3. The consequence of that behaviour

From the perspective of behavioural analysis the first part is termed the ‘antecedent’ as it comes before the behaviour.
The antecedent sets out the circumstances or the scene under which the behaviour occurs.

Next comes the behaviour itself and lastly we have the ‘consequence’.

Please note very carefully that the antecedent, although it comes before the behaviour, it does not cause it to occur.
It merely sets out the circumstances at the time and is thus also known as a ‘setting event’.

The consequence

We know that the ‘consequence’ comes after the behaviour and may be a good thing or a bad thing.
It should not be considered entirely in this narrow fashion.
What the consequence is will determine the likelihood of repeating that particular behaviour.
That is, it will determine the probability of the behaviour recurring.

The antecedent triggers a choice in behaviour pattern which may be good or bad according to what behaviour you are trying to elicit.

For example, when carrying out a chemical experiment it may be desirable for people to wear goggles.
So the two behaviours that can occur will be either:

  1. Puts on the goggles
  2. Doesn’t put on the goggles

If we look at each response and its antecedents and consequences we may get:

Behaviour observed: ‘puts on the goggles’.

Correct sizeComplete eye protection
Easy to reachSaves time
Legal requirementDon’t get into trouble

Behaviour observed: ‘doesn’t put on goggles’.

Loose strapRisk serious eye injury
The job will only take 2 minutesSaves time
They are dirtyCan see and act better without them

In practice a consequence is based upon how the person sees the situation and not your interpretation of it.
It’s the person’s motivation for a particular course of action.

In this simple case the individual is seeing short term gains at the expense of the probability that anything will go wrong with the chemical reaction. In this example, dealing with the antecedents in the ‘doesn’t put on goggles’ scenario could modify behaviour in the desired direction.

In other words:

  1. Make sure all goggles are fit for purpose and wearable immediately
  2. Reiterate the legal requirements
  3. Emphasise that negative consequences can happen any time and may be irreversible
  4. Instigate checking procedures so that goggles are always useable

Antecedents and response

If a consequence is good then a particular desired behaviour is more likely to be repeated, which is what you want.

The behaviour reflects the performance. If this is good then performance will be good as it is what you desire to happen.

The presence of an antecedent is necessary to ‘trigger’ a behaviour but it will not cause a particular behaviour.

In the above example the presence of good quality goggles that are easily available may not be enough to make people wear them in the way you wish.

For example, an individual may just hold them against their face and work with one hand to ‘save time’.
In other words, the antecedent has triggered a behaviour but a choice still exists as to the exact nature of that behaviour.

In general, when a particular antecedent fails to get the desired behaviour the usual system is to introduce another different antecedent. This can be a very hit and miss affair to achieve the correct behaviour.
The trick is to try to match the correct antecedent with the right consequence which will give the best possibility for the desired behaviour and hence good performance.

That is improve motivation.