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7.0 Reinforcing Systems—An Overview

7.0 Reinforcing Systems—An Overview
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The Pillar That Enables Enduring Success 

Great organizations, like great individuals, are at their best when in their natural state of flow, which is created by disciplined, strategic, and purposeful actions. Initially, committing to this discipline takes a lot of energy, but once it becomes a habit, some of that energy is freed up. In the Section 7 blog posts, we will address the importance of Reinforcing Systems—habit makers—in helping your organization become more strategically purposeful for the long term, but with the same level of energy expended today. We will also discuss the Key Metrics that supports these systems, and how to implement them. Finally, we will talk about the types of supportive Rewards and Recognition for progress on those metrics.

Implementing these concepts requires a thorough understanding of, and commitment to, the six Pillars of the Foundation of Greatness previously discussed. Sustainable Reinforcing Systems, the seventh Pillar, must be structured around honoring and aligning with the organization’s Core Identity, made of:

  • Purpose: Why you exist today, and how you serve others (Our Stage III Fulfillment)
  • Vision: The better tomorrow you want to create for others (Our Stage IV Fulfillment)
  • Guiding Principles: Your Beliefs and Values, and the Boundaries that uniquely define them for your organization

When the proper Reinforcing Systems are executed, we unleash natural greatness, and create a sustainable, enduringly successful organization. A natural flow is created that feels right.

“A culture of discipline is not just about action. It is about getting disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and . . . who then take disciplined action.” – Jim Collins

Reinforcing Systems that fail to support your Core Identity lead to employee confusion and disengagement. They must be transparent and timely enforced to build trust that the organization has an identity bigger than any individual. Culture is about the cohesive future of the organization as a stable whole. With that clarity, words become feelings, and feelings lead to consistent actions, which then lead to a natural flow of the organization honoring how it performs at its best.

What if an organization’s performance metrics reward behavior that is ultimately damaging? In the early 2000s, investing in mortgages became increasingly popular, and lenders were rewarded for the value of the mortgages they processed. Corners were cut, and laws were bent, then broken, as ends justified means. These lenders were rewarded in the short term, at a heavy, sobering long-term cost to borrowers, stockholders, and the financial health of the nation.

What are Reinforcing Systems?

It is human nature to want to know both where the boundaries are and the proper rules of conduct to play inside them. Organizations that understand this have created a disciplined set of Boundaries and Code of Conduct (Core Identity) that enable a natural flow for the team to perform at its best. Recognizing great illustrations of compliance, as well as violations, honors the organization’s Core Identity. Your Reinforcing Systems continually send messages of alignment and fit to team members, which create greater security, comfort, and creativity.

We have found that organizations that have weak Reinforcing Systems tend to struggle. Some exceptionally talented members are permitted to compromise the best interest of the team by playing out of bounds, and some are even rewarded for doing so.

 “Your culture is a result of what you chose to tolerate, and what you chose not to tolerate.” – Anonymous

Course Correction—An Example

While supporting teams at the University of Michigan, we had one team that regularly struggled and had never won a conference championship. It became clear that the best player on the team, who had been named Conference Freshman of the Year the previous year, was not a team player. She was impacting the energy on the team through her conduct towards other players. After much discussion, we made the decision to remove her from the team. The next year, this team won its first Big Ten Championship.

Why are Reinforcing Systems Important?

Through consistent Reinforcing Systems, we establish enablers that permit us to find our comfort zone, the safety and security that humans crave. With practice and preparation, we can perform exceptionally well, even in situations of tremendous pressure, because we have been there before, and we find greater comfort each time we honor who we are meant to be when at our best.

The Challenge of Leadership

It is natural for humans to test boundaries to understand where safety and security lie; we do so from babyhood on. As a leader, understand that rules will be tested, must be tested, and even broken, for your team to find its comfort zone. When out of our comfort zone, we are insecure and unsure, and it stresses our body and brain. We are not at our best in this state, as we are unable to capitalize on the natural assets we possess physically and emotionally. It is also essential to strike the right balance of enough boundaries to provide the necessary guidance, but not so many as to overwhelm your team’s efforts to comply, or your own capacity to monitor and enforce.

From Overwhelming to Appropriate—An Example

In 1984, after the University of Michigan football team went 6-6, head football coach Bo Schembechler and I sought insight from a child psychologist. Bo said, “We are not going to work 92 hours a week to go 6-6, we will do something else unless we can understand what we need to change!”

Given the extensive list of rules we had for the team, it was impossible to track compliance. Players tested boundaries, often without consequence. Unable to find their comfort zone, the players were not secure in their focus and effort to be their best. The psychologist explained that when the brain is in conflict (a rule has been broken with no consequence), the mind checks out to escape the conflict. He suggested we have four or five principles that we stood for at all times, each with a boundary for acceptability that we enforced.

We shared this concept with the coaching staff at our next meeting. It became very clear which principle to honor first: We cared about each of the players as an individual. The upcoming Spring Game would be an excellent opportunity to get closer to the team. The Monday after the game, we had a golf outing; there was one coach and three players in each foursome, and at the dinner afterwards, the winning team had steak, while the losers ate hotdogs. All who participated still remember the laughter and camaraderie of that special day. In Bo’s next and last six years of coaching we won three Big Ten championships.

Tapping into Intrinsic Energy

The Reinforcing Systems of the Foundation of Greatness help team members learn and understand what it is that enables their organization to be great, to be energized by contributing to something bigger than themselves. It feels right, and in time, it becomes intrinsic, and we are in a natural state of flow. We feel a greater sense of security as part of a team with a shared mission.

Reinforcing Systems honor our organizational Core Identity, thereby creating a secure and trusting culture and environment. This helps the subconscious to be fully engaged 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and it costs the family, team, community, or organization nothing.

In blog post 7.1, we will discuss the importance of objective key metrics.

Leadership Questions

  1. Do you have rules or principles that you ask your team to be responsible for?
  2. Are your Guiding Principles/Core Values clearly identified?
  3. Are the boundaries for what you look and act like when at your best understood and reinforced?

This post is part of series drawn from Fritz Seyferth’s upcoming book on the Foundation of Greatness.


Reigniting their identity.

Reigniting their identity.

Reigniting a law firm to allow them to perform at their best.