Managers: Are you killing your pigeons?

When I was fresh out of university, I had the incredible privilege of being mentored by a pioneer in behavioral psychology, Dr. D. Chris Anderson. Dr. Anderson was a professor emeritus at Notre Dame University and by the time I met him, he was working with organizations across the United States and Canada applying the principles of behavioral psychology in the workplace. Behavioral Psychology (think Skinner’s rats pressing levers for food) has gone somewhat out of vogue in the advent of Cognitive and Positive Psychology in terms of leadership tools but in my opinion you just can’t beat it for developing solid management systems that work. Chris was very passionate about different ways his technology could be relevant in the marketplace and he definitely infused me with the same passion. As I began to develop myself as a coach, I was happy to augment more of the ‘touchy-feely’ transformation leadership and positive psychology research into my work, but still use organizational behavior management as the cornerstone of my work with managers and company owners.

One of the stories Chris used to tell was how, back in the sixties, it was popular to train pigeons to do un-pigeonlike activities, such as walking in a figure eight (rarely if ever necessary in a pigeon’s natural environment, as you might expect). You could train them to do anything, Chris used to say, as long as you were consistent in your reinforcement schedule.  In the case of walking in a figure eight, you can wait around for years, and will never ‘catch’ it just doing it spontaneously for you to reward it. So, when you are training a pigeon to do something totally unfamiliar, you need to give small and frequent rewards for every new behavior getting. You might tape the eight on the floor and put pellets along the path the pigeon is to walk. Then remove the tape after several sessions. Then remove more and more pellets…you get the idea. Basically, you reinforce progressive movements towards the goal with frequent and contingent reinforcement. Simple, right? However, once in a while a tired or drugged out (this was the sixties, remember) lab assistant would drop a pellet outside the proscribed figure eight and the pigeon would get derailed. When that happened, the pigeon was never, ever able to forget about the time he/she wandered off track and got an unexpected reward. Because times were hard in those days for lab pigeons, the fate of a mis-programmed pigeon was, sadly, death.

Now, please note, employees are different from pigeons and I am a huge Daniel Pink fan and completely agree that the types and schedules of reinforces vary to a tremendous extent and that you would never, ever use delicious food pellets to elicit spontaneous creative behavior (free snacks nonwithstanding). However, I WILL pretty much go to the wall and state that managers can metaphorically kill their employees with inconsistent rewards or punishments.

Most managers or company owners I work with consistently bemoan the fact that their employees don’t care about the company as much as they do. By this they are usually talking about stewardship of company resources or customer goodwill. They want employees to bring up solutions, carry a high sense of urgency and problem solve.

Unfortunately, in nine times out of ten, the owner has killed that pigeon. How? By accidentally punishing desired behavior or rewarding undesired behavior. The most common things I see is making it painful for someone to tell you bad news, or, conversely, ‘rewarding’ substandard performance with less work and a raise.

To illustrate: What happens when an employee brings you news about a major equipment malfunction? I’m assuming TELLING you about the malfunction is a good thing. It allows you to engage in damage control. If the employee who communicates this to you gets sworn or yelled at or denigrated – guess what? It won’t happen again. Trust me, this is not a good thing and if your employees can’t get past this, it is metaphorically fatal for them (and eventually you). Similarly, if someone brings you an innovative idea or plan, and you scoff at them because it’s a bad idea (and we’re not in grade school so of course there ARE bad ideas from time to time) or worse, remonstrate them for wasting company time daydreaming, you will have very effectively eliminated any more creative thinking. 

The second most common example of improper reinforcement is when a poorly performing employee is relieved of responsibilities (which are usually given to a highly competent employee, without the requisite pay increase). Poor performer is 8/10 not written up and often still receives a raise on his/her annual review. Maybe not a big one, but they’ll probably get something. It is almost impossible to redeem this situation.

Now, I’m not convinced that one incident can destroy the employee’s desire to contribute forever…but I’m not saying it never does, either.  The ability of our reactions as leaders to impact others are astoundingly more powerful than we tend to believe. I encourage the folks I coach to be very intentional about the behaviors they are hoping to see from their people and extremely cognizant of their own reactive tendencies to try to reduce the chances of inadvertently creating the exactly opposite effect they are hoping to create.

So think before you react, and save the pigeons!

By Carrie Maldonado

Carrie Maldonado, is an organizational development consultant, author, and speaker. Carrie's eclectic mix of professional interests include writing, speaking, coaching, and consulting on topics ranging from organizational behavior management to spiritual transformation in and out of the workplace. Carrie lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her patient and long-suffering husband and their three children.

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