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You Can Change Behavior and Leave Personalities Intact

Recently I’ve reached a personal “tipping point,” in regard to understanding human organizational behavior. Possibly, others have had a similar learning experience.At one time, I believed that I understood everything; I was patently certain that I could explain everything with a few basic precepts.

Time and experience eroded my self-confidence; the principles and practice of one discipline solved many problems, but left many unsolved. I started looking at other theories and disciplines—finding intriguing explanations for why people do the things they do. Unfortunately, the more I read the more confused I became. It was not unlike my experiences in reading philosophy (a fleeting experience I admit); I found something of value in every school of thought.

I saw that many apparently conflicting disciplines were talking about the same things using different words. The imprecision of language and the broadly different ways we experience reality lead us to explain things uniquely.Beneath the veneer of exaggerated differences lay complementary unification.Theories and explanatory models were isomorphic and homologous.

When one takes any approach, discipline, perspective, theory, or philosophy to its extremes, it becomes unintelligible.You can hardly blame anyone for seeking “the answer,”—the causal explanation.The ambiguity one experiences when confronted by several approaches—each equally convincing, but often mutually contradictory—encourages one to seek the psychological protection of one definitive answer. The riotous onslaught of authorities with their incontestable certitude drives us to seek some friendly port against this storm--one explanatory model of human behavior.

Each of us, by virtue of our genetics, developmental history, hormones, biochemistry, neurological makeup, behavioral history, the social context in which we are operating, and real-time situational factors is driven toward a way of interpreting what we see and hear—our special perspective.We are driven, heliotropically to engage the answers that best suit our nature; we are drawn like a magnet toward a world picture that suits us.

I struggled against the discomfort of trying to find a path through the maze. The book stores’ shelves hold hundreds of books on management theory and leadership, and the shelves of college book stores house dozens of competing theories that inform the authors of those books. The experts defend their fortresses of theoretical primacy, but I saw many interdisciplinary opportunities and salient synergies.When the rush of alternatives and competing ideas reached cognitive critical mass, I had my “tipping point.”

Organizations appear to go through a similar search for a comfortable understanding of their own dynamics, but since groups learn differently than individuals, thought and theories do not become organized and differentiated—learning is slow. Because organizations usually learn very slowly, the tipping point for an organization may only occur after performance problems have reached a critical mass.

Subsequently, many companies have gone through legions of performance improvement initiatives and supervisory and leadership training models. It is not unusual to find a business unit training their managers and supervisors in strategies that have conflicting theoretical underpinnings. Profiles and assessments that tell leaders and supervisors “what kind of traits, style, or personality,” they have are interesting, but using and applying the information is problematic. The ROI is seldom investigated.

Therefore, practical necessity demanded that I assign behavioral psychology—Applied Behavior Analysis, with its powerful principles of positive reinforcement, to its proper position in my understanding of organizational behavior.Behavior Analysis provides one with information about “why” someone in an organization (or any setting) says or does something.The behavioral platform presents a causal algorithm—a root cause analysis template for human action.

Lean principles and Six Sigma are robust tools for eliminating waste and improving quality in organizational processes. Similarly, Behavior Analysis is a powerful tool for explaining what environmental factors—what specific, precise physical or social factors—cause or caused an employee to do something (to behave in a certain way) and whether or not he or she is likely to behave that way again.Behavior Analysis brings the same explanatory rigor to human behavior that Lean brings to waste and Six Sigma brings to quality.

If you are creating an improvement storyboard, a Pareto chart, a fishbone diagram, a tree diagram, an activity network diagram, an affinity diagram or a behaviour-based safety checklist you need to know what a behaviour is (be able to accurately identify a specific behaviour without confusing it with characteristics, results, and fuzzy generalizations), determine what prompts the behaviour (like a ring prompts you to “reach for” your cell phone), and what encourages you to continue to behave that way (what reinforces the behaviour, as when you reach for the cell phone—open it up—and viola, there is someone on the other end to talk to.)

Does understanding what prompts a behaviour and what causes it to happen more than once explain all we need to know about people and organizations and management?No, but across the globe human performance is limited because leaders, managers, and supervisors do not understand the fundamentals of behavioural causation. They don’t know that much of the behaviour they see is not prompted by complex personality variables, but by immediate, situational factors that can be controlled to ensure that people behave in ways that support their best interests (safety being the most important)—the best interests of the product, their coworkers, and the customer.

If you have reached a personal “tipping point,” input overload, critical dysfunctional mass in trying to understand why people do the things they do, keep reading this blog.I can’t explain the meaning of life, but I can tell you why your teenager begs for money.