Why your Employee is Always Right

I learned a lot about humans from studying pigeons.

It was 1985 and I worked at Professor Israel Goldiamond’s behaviorism lab at the University of Chicago. (And yes, pigeons are a lot different from people.)

The biggest thing Professor G. taught me was, “the organism is always right.”

No matter what the experimenter does with lights, levers, food pellets, and reward schedules, ultimately the pigeon decides what the pigeon’s gonna do.

Imagine me, clipboard in hand, watching a pigeon do something I didn’t expect.  Watch me yell, “you’re doing it wrong!”  Watch the pigeon ignore me.  (Might as well have been a honey badger.)

And, if you’re studying how the environment influences behavior — and “environment” can include “what your supervisor says and does” — then the behavior you get is always exactly the correct behavior, for:

  • this specific organism
  • with its unique history
  • under these exact circumstances
  • including the variables I am not noticing

No, yelling “you’re doing it wrong” at the pigeon is not effective.

So, transition please to your own business.

Behavior at Work

Why do workers not do what they’re told?

(This is the #1 or #2 most common complaint among owners and managers.)

No, workers are not pigeons. The only thing they have in common for purposes of this discussion is that their behaviors, too, are always “right.”

When your employee doesn’t fill out their time card, or doesn’t say please and thank-you, or ignores a “mandatory” email from the CEO, from a behaviorist perspective, they showing us exactly the correct behavior, for:

  • this specific human
  • with their unique history
  • under these exact circumstances
  • including the variables I am not noticing

I know, the word “right” feels wrong. There are rules! It’s not “right” to fail to fill out a time card! It’s wrong!

Yes, and.

Every time people do the “wrong” thing — and we are the ones trying to shift their behavior — I fall back on what I learned from Professor G. If I want new behavior, I have to give them new inputs. Even more wisely, I might study what current inputs are maybe contributing to the current behavior, so I shift the correct ones.

Blame Only Yourself

There are two incredibly useful things about this perspective:

  1. It forces you to stop labeling your own staff as “bad” or “wrong” and lets you love them and accept them as they are.
  2. It requires you look to your behavior and systems. You don’t focus on changing your people — you focus on changing your self and your company’s systems.

And yes, it’s possible that not every single staff member is going to work out. Maybe you didn’t hire as carefully as you could have, and someone works for you who really ought to be somewhere else. That’s okay. It’s not their fault — it’s yours. You hired them. You trained them.

Consider the poor CEO who sends out an all-company email that says “it’s mandatory that you reply to this” and only 5% of staff reply. Aren’t the non-replying staff “wrong”?

Why aren’t they Wrong?

Labeling them “wrong” doesn’t advance us closer toward the outcome we want. I’m not saying it’s wrong to call them “wrong” — I’m saying it’s useless and distracting to call them “wrong” — focus instead on the outcome you want.

For that CEO, I would recommend:

  1. New mindset. Accept and love your staff exactly as they are, even when they don’t do what you tell them to do. (99.9% of people want to do the right thing, and 0.1% are sociopaths. Don’t manage to the 0.1%)
  2. Figure out your own contribution. Maybe ‘reply to me directly’ is scary. Maybe they get so many ‘mandatory’ emails they’re numb. Maybe the specific email was so huge it felt daunting. Maybe the ask was too vague — vagueness kills. If it arrived feeling vague, huge, AND scary — that could explain the silence.
  3. Figure out what has worked, and do more of it. Do you succeed when you ask for input, and require your direct reports to collect that input at a staff meeting and summarize it for you? Okay, do that every time.
One great question I’ve learned to ask is: “you did that for a good reason, I’m sure — what is it?”  And then listen.

There are Still Rules

Let’s not go crazy — there are still rules.  I’m covering normal behavior.  One of the environmental aspects you create are firm and clear rules, like “no stealing.”

Even heroes sometimes try to ignore the boss.  In the book and movie “Dr. No,” M issues James Bond a new pistol.  Bond resists.  M quietly says, “If the discipline of the double-0 section is not to your liking, I can arrange your transfer back to the Signals department.” Bond immediately stops resisting.  (This is ‘positional power’ and should be used very sparingly.)

Good HR practices like training and progressive discipline, are all about making sure the staffer knows the rules and is capable of following them.

And there should always be bright-line rules where one bad act can get you fired — such as violence toward a co-worker.

And maybe “this particular person” with “their unique history” is unable to fit in to your firm, your culture, and follow your rules.  Love them and help them find a better-fit position in a different company.

For the vast majority of your employees, you’ll get big mileage out of being super clear, and treating their confusion or resistance as information on how you can do a better job leading and managing.

(Got a tough employee problem? Share it with me, and I’ll share some ideas with you.  If I use [anonymously] it in a column I’ll send you a $5 Starbucks gift card to thank you for your time and effort.)

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