Changing behaviors is a limbic system issue. Disengaged or difficult employees need to pivot from their old motivations perpetuating underperformance to new ones promoting performance excellence. Enter the “pivot point.”

A pivot point is the moment your brain decides you’re done with a particular behavior or pattern and commits to a different behavior. Unlike the slow, steady march of habit change (like working out more often, eating better, writing more), which is a logical process, a pivot point is an emotional shift – a moment – that changes behavior, usually permanently.

We all experience a pivot point in our lives: the birth of a child might cause us to stop smoking for good, so we can be there to watch them grow up. The unexpected loss of a job might cause us to finally chase after that dream of starting our own business. The right advice from a trusted mentor may shift our way of thinking instantly. Pivot points are not everyday occurrences, but they happen to all of us at one time or another in our lives.

Now imagine, as a leader, taking the opportunity to create an emotional pivot point for a difficult employee. What if you could shift their behavior for the good of the individual, the team, and the organization?

Pivot points create incredible opportunities for leaders to help change employees’ behavior. If you can identify the key pivot points that create limbic resonance – that is, a deep-seated, mental connection – in an employee, you can more quickly and effectively shift behaviors from negative to positive, productive, and high-performing.

Here are a few things to pay attention to when working to find a pivot point with a difficult employee:

Do you know what your employee cares about, or is motivated by, at a core level?

The answer to this question can be the start of a pivot process. No idea? Time to get to know your team members better. Start flexing your relationship-building muscle and spend dedicated time working alongside (or drinking a cup of coffee alongside) that particular employee. Start small: Ask thoughtful questions. Be a good listener. Keep mental notes on what they say is important to them.

  • How do they like to work?
  • What are they energized by?
  • What is a strength they are proud of?

The deeper you dig, the more you get to know them on a personal level, the easier it will be for you to identify what they care about most. Then, you can start to address a pivot point based on that knowledge. How? By connecting what they care about with the picture you’re about to paint for them…

Paint a picture of what will happen if things don’t change … or rather, what will happen if they DO.

You’re probably familiar with the timeless tale of Ebenezer Scrooge. He saw his future from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future and realized in a very real pivot point moment, that he did not want to be the same crotchety old man he’d been for many years. Those messengers painted a clear picture of the horizon ahead for old Scrooge, effectively shifting his behavior for good.  

Too often, we let life happen to us instead of sitting in the driver’s seat to make life happen. Habits die hard, and we are prone to slipping into and staying in patterns of behavior – some productive, and some less so. We go on autopilot all the time. When you need to create a pivot point experience with someone, you need to shake them from their autopilot – and casting a vision of what could be is a great place to start.

A word of caution though: You should be careful to not be pejorative, negative, or critical when you paint a picture for your team member. Neuroscience tells us that anything negative is a punch to the brain. We can’t hear criticism without retreating into an emotional (and sometimes literal) fight, flight, or freeze moment.

Instead, help your employee see who they can be if they shift their behaviors. Give them a sense of purpose and excitement – tied directly to what motivates them most – for committing themselves to behave in a different way.

Connect pivot points to core values when possible.

Core values, when truly integrated into a company culture, create a powerful condition: alignment. Values, like pivot points, aren’t about logic. They are deeply held beliefs that can play a significant role in influencing employee behavior. Since we are hardwired as relational beings, the emotional connection that respected peers and leaders place on core values can serve as a powerful pivot point for performance.

When you identify a desired behavioral shift and align it to a powerful organizational core value, you drive both emotional connection and intrinsic motivation. Creating alignment between values and behavior also gives clarity to the individual about how their actions impact the deep-seated beliefs of the organization and the individuals working in it.

Here is one approach: Even with the most disengaged employee, there is usually something they do well. It might be small, like showing up on time. Take this strength (again, it may not be momentous), compliment it, elevate the behavior to a value, and then compliment their expression of that value.

“Mark, I wanted to tell you how impressed I am at how punctual you are. Every day, rain or shine, you are here and ready to work on time.” That was the behavioral recognition. Now the elevation to a value (hopefully also an organizational core value): “I see a lot of integrity in your commitment to showing up on time every day. You consistently set an example for the rest of our staff, and I’m really grateful for that.” This is the foundational step in linking values to behaviors.

Now for the pivot point moment. The next step in this process is to extend the identified value to another, less remarkable performance issue through a lens of curiosity. “I am curious about something, Mark. All the integrity you exhibit around punctuality … I just don’t see that same level expressed when it comes to quality control on your work. Help me understand why it seems you are so committed in one area and not the other? Are their obstacles standing in your way that are preventing you from demonstrating the same level of integrity in your work? Where can I step in to support you better?”

The goal here is to remind the employee they are capable of, even already demonstrating, integrity – a value shared and embraced by the organization. Then, through a frame of curiosity, extend their understanding of the need to perform at the same level on another aspect of their job. This more positive, affirmative approach delivers deeper benefits and outcomes than the old punitive approach.

Sure, you may be able to get someone to pivot by threatening them, but that is not the approach that will create a positive experience for employees. Instead, working with the employee to discover pivot points cultivates an engaged team that thrives.

Key Takeaways

  • Pivot points create an incredible opportunity to turn around an employee’s behavior.
  • When you can determine the pivot points that create limbic resonance in an employee, you can more quickly and effectively change behaviors from negative to positive.
  • When working to find a pivot point with a difficult employee, identify what they are motivated by at a core level, paint a picture of what will happen when they change their negative behavior, and align pivot points with core values.

Would you like more tips on building a high-performance work culture? Read my book, Thrive By Design to learn the science behind cultivating an engaged workplace where your employees thrive.