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Archive for month: January, 2013

The Downstream Impact of Safety Goals

Categories: Feedback, Leadership, SafetyAuthor:

Despite experts recommending against it for years (decades?), having a goal of zero injuries is quite popular these days. One organization we are familiar with had such a goal that was handed down from the corporate offices.  I assume it was with the best of intentions: what leader wants to see the people in its organization get hurt?  The organization had even had discussion at a high level about divesting in the riskiest parts of the business.  “If we can’t do this without hurting people, then perhaps we shouldn’t do it at all.” So, this was not purely about money – at some level there were truly caring people who devised the zero injury goal.

The problems came in translating it through the levels of the business.  It’s one thing for an executive to publicize an audacious goal, but it’s another thing for middle managers to execute on it.  One impact that the goal had was to put immense pressure on managers to eliminate injuries at the location they manage.  The pressure was so intense that people feared for their jobs when injuries were reported.  At the very least, people get more focused on the goal than on doing the right things every day to make it more likely that people will be safe.

This is what we mean by ‘downstream impact”. Putting pressure on a middle manager can have the downstream impact of pressuring general managers to pressure operations managers, who then pressure their staff, who pressure supervisors and the workforce.  At some sites, the workforce gets so invested in reducing injuries that people injured on the job are afraid of reporting the injury, for fear of retribution from coworkers.  This is for real injuries, not to mention property damage, equipment-related incidents, or close calls.  Those can become even more elusive in this environment.

It’s true getting overly focused on the goal can drive reporting and honest dialogue underground.  If any of you have seen something like this happen, I’d love to hear from you about it. Behavioral science would suggest that it’s something that occurs more often than we might hope.

Why Would Anyone Confess to a Crime They Didn’t Commit? The Answer: Negative Reinforcement

Categories: Behavior change, Employee Engagement, LeadershipAuthor:

Police in Chicago are often given the difficult task of identifying and arresting those responsible for committing crimes within the city.  They have a pretty good track record of getting convictions via sworn confessions, but sometimes people admit to crimes they didn’t commit.  Why would anybody do this?  The television news program 60 Minutes conducted an investigation of wrongful convictions in Chicago to find out.  Tactics used by the Chicago police unit to obtain confessions included: refusing food, drink, or use of the toilet, and other means of psychological and physical pain.  Multiply these tactics over a few hours, days, or even weeks and it’s no wonder people will say and do anything to escape the situation, including giving false confessions to murder or rape.  Over the last few years 189 convictions have been overturned after further investigation was carried out.

Negative reinforcement is one of the most misunderstood concepts in behavioral science, and also one of the most common ways of managing people in organizations.  Negative reinforcement is also responsible for generating unhappy, anxious, and unmotivated employees.  The first step to minimizing its use is understanding what it is.

Negative reinforcement increases behavior.  Someone has experienced negative reinforcement whenever they have engaged in a behavior in order to avoid or escape an aversive situation.  An example might be consistently delivering a report just before it is due.  The behavior of ‘delivering reports’ is likely to occur because the employee will be reprimanded otherwise.  An indication that someone is guilty of this type of management involves the timing of report submission.  If your people are consistently submitting work just before the deadline, you’re likely providing negative reinforcement for work completion.  Another way to test this is to make a few tasks optional and see how many people complete them.  If nobody does, you can bet you manage people with negative reinforcement.

Another example is giving in to a child’s request for something (say, a toy at the toy store).  The child kicking and screaming on the floor might just prompt you to give in.  This behavior, giving in, ends the embarrassing situation happening in front of amused onlookers.  Remember, negative reinforcement increases behavior.  Agreeing to purchase the toy resulted in shutting the little squirt up and increased the chances that you’ll give in next time because your giving-in was reinforced.  Negative reinforcement is why we take aspirin when we have a headache, or scratch a mosquito bite.  Those behaviors all eliminate aversive conditions.

The good news is there are ways to get results (and manage behavior) that don’t require negative reinforcement.  Create an environment where people want to add value not because they have to, but because they want to.  Start by recognizing achievement when appropriate.  When you must provide constructive feedback, be sure it’s pinpointed.  People tend to accept feedback much better when it is specific.  Count the number of punishers (face to face comments, remarks in e-mails and so on) you deliver in a day and work to reduce that number.  Find opportunities to tell people what you like about what they’re doing to increase the chance you’re seen as a deliverer of positive reinforcement, instead of negative reinforcement.

There will always be some situations that require a bit of negative reinforcement.  It’s not that we should never use negative reinforcement; it’s that we should learn to use it in the right time and place.  If your employees are confessing to crimes they didn’t commit or doing everything just before the deadline, you’re probably using too much.

The Science of Perspective Taking

Categories: Behavior change, Employee Engagement, LeadershipAuthor:

Perspective taking is the ability to see things from other people’s viewpoint, to put yourself in their shoes.  I believe that this skill is so fundamental that people cannot become transformational leaders without it.

Behaviorally speaking, there are three components of perspective taking.

1)   Understanding the reinforcers and punishers of others

2)   Knowing something about the learning history of others

3)   Understanding the impact of environment on behavior

Research suggests that people who rate themselves as excellent at perspective taking tend to be poor at it.  People who are good at perspective taking question whether they have truly considered all of the factors necessary to understand the situation and behavior.

Benefits of Perspective Taking

The better people get at perspective taking the harder it becomes to make decisions that negatively impact employees.  We generally try to avoid harming ourselves and so when we get good at perspective taking and can imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we will probably try to avoid harming them, too.

Research suggests that transformational leaders are better at perspective taking.  Because of this, they often manage using relationships.  They understand their people and know how to subtly shift the environment to create change.  Transactional leaders, on the other hand, rely more on tangible leadership tools like incentive and punishment systems.  Stronger consequences that are likely to shift most people’s behavior are used indiscriminately.  It’s less personalized and means that while they might overall get the kind of behavior they want, they are probably not getting the best from their people.

Perspective Taking is a Learned Skill

It turns out, we aren’t born with a natural ability to take perspective.  As children, after a certain age, we get better at it and it can be taught.  In fact, research suggests that our ability to take the perspectives of others doesn’t generalize all that well to new situations, as children or as adults.  So, it takes practice and effort.

In fact, as people move up in leadership ranks, they tend to regress in perspective taking and start to assume that people around them agree with their perspective.  This is because the environment starts to shift as power increases.  People become more timid about expressing dissenting opinions because the perceived, and maybe the real, negative consequences get larger.  As leaders move up in rank, they have to work harder to hear different viewpoints.  For many, it’s just too easy to get comfortable with people around them agreeing.  This means we should start teaching leaders this skill early on to avoid problems later.

How can we improve our perspective taking skills?

  1. Learn more about behavioral principles and the impact of the environment on behavior
  2. Ask good questions
  3. Get good at observing behavior

I am a firm believer that as people learn and practice behavioral science they become more effective.  And more empathetic.  And more likely to act in accordance with their values.  So, in 2013, consider working on your perspective taking skills through practicing behavioral science.