Management Psychology 101- Practical Behaviorism in the Workplace

Using the words “practical” and “behaviorism” side-by-side may be a bit redundant if you’re at all familiar with the history of this school of psychology. At its root, it seeks to focus on what is observable. John Watson once famously said:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and the race of his ancestors.”

While John Watson’s views were a bit extreme, positing that the mind and consciousness were non-existent and every human reaction could be explained as a matter of simple cause and effect, I’d like to focus in on the work of Burrhus Frederic Skinner or B.F. Skinner.

B.F. Skinner acknowledged his belief in the inner workings of human beings, but he found that mental events had no observable qualities, so they could not be studied or known. Hence, favoring the behaviors of humans.

Skinner is credited with developing the theory of reinforcement. Simply put, behaviors that are reinforced tend to stick around and those that aren’t tend to fizzle out.

The basis of Skinner’s theory is that, like animals, people’s behaviors can be conditioned.

How does this all apply to management? Isn’t it clear?

By coaching your team properly and providing the right type of reinforcement, you can develop preferred behaviors and (hopefully) discourage detrimental ones.

It’s important to note that there are three types of operants that can (or don’t) shape behavior:

  1. Neutral – Has no effect on a behavior
  2. Reinforcement – Promotes a behavior
  3. Punishment – Actively discourages a behavior

We needn’t worry about neutral operants because, well, they don’t do anything. And suffice it to say I won’t encourage punishment for both you and your team’s sake because it can lead to resentment, which promotes a disengaged or actively disengaged workforce (approximately 70% of employees in the United States belong to this group).

Now you’re probably wondering, “How do I implement something like this?” or “I’ll have what this guy’s having!”

It’s quite simple, and you’re likely already doing it. As a scientist, Skinner’s goal was to observe and measure in controlled environments. To observe them, these reinforcers must already occur in normal social interactions.

Now your question should be more along the lines of, “What should I keep doing and what should I stop doing?”

This is where things get interesting. To understand and answer these questions, I’ll break down the different types of reinforcers: positive and negative.

Positive reinforcement is presenting a positive stimulus in response to a desired behavior to promote the continuation of that behavior. Negative reinforcement is removing a negative stimulus to promote the continuation of a desired behavior.

Negative reinforcement is more tricky because you have to be a little maniacal to implement something like this. For example, playing Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” on a constant loop, only giving temporary respite once a task is completed satisfactorily.

You’re right! That’s crazy!

Positive reinforcement is much easier on everyone involved, and is a tactic you’ll learn in best-selling business books dating back to the turn of the century, perhaps further. For any preferred behavior, a really great pitch deck, report, or presentation, offer your team a reward or recognize them.

This is most effective when you do it intermittently, so your team doesn’t begin to have the expectation that a good job is always followed by a given reward. It also helps if you can tie it to a reward that has intrinsic value for your team members. A thoughtful, personal, and well-written congratulatory note, a company-sponsored outing to show your appreciation, or even a quick shoutout can go a long way.

How can you apply this to your team? Have you been developing undesired behaviors? Leave it in the comments!

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