There are very few rules in Behavioural Sciences. If we were to write an ABC of Psychology, A would look as follows: any behaviour that is reinforced (rewarded, recognised, gratified…) will increase in frequency; any behaviour that is not reinforced will fade. The rule is amoral; blind as to whether the behaviour is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Of course you have noticed that I have not said ‘punished’. I have said ‘not reinforced’ (e.g. ignored). These are completely different. Punishment has some short term effect but does not compare favourably, anything near, with ‘not reinforced’ in the power to sustain that behaviour.
OK, you just have had about 50% Psychology in the paragraph above. Just kidding. Well, a little bit kidding only.
For reinforcement, read money, attention, verbal recognition, acknowledgement, affection, personal satisfaction and just about anything that the individual perceives as positive and beneficial for him or her. It is ‘personal’. Person A may be externally reinforced (rewarded, recognised) by saying thanks to her or by feeling proud. That person A would not expect money. In fact money may be an insult. For person B, same situation, he may expect money, and saying thanks only would be an insult. There is no way to blindly reinforce until and unless you have ‘data’. Universal reward systems based on management assumptions (stock options for all after a certain rank, across the board salary increase) are nonsense. They are a rather lazy machine gun approach that is bound to satisfy some people but not all.
One particular reinforcement mechanism is however remarkably universal: airtime. Since behaviours compete on time for (attention) reinforcement, the more air time dedicated, the more reinforcement and therefore higher probability of that behaviour to stick. But the same blindness applies. The mind/brain seem to be very sloppy about this. So many things are competing with each other, that there is no time to discriminate. More airtime, more of it, good or bad. That’s it.
Here are some counter-intuitions:
- Dedicating enormous amounts of time to discuss problems will progressively create more problems, since the problems, not the solutions, get the airtime.
- Focusing on discussing mistakes as a routine, may lead to solve less mistakes and create more, so they can be solved.
- People who bring constant ‘yes but’, and ‘the problem is’, and ‘we have an issue with’, as a routine, and get lots of attention by peers and management, are people who will bring less and less solutions and will bring to the table more problems.
I can hear some people saying that this is a recipe for promoting the hiding of the negative under the carpet. No, it isn’t. But the mind/brain/and, by the way, the collective (audience, team) has limited bandwidth. I can assure you that if 80% of the time you focus on problems (language, time, negative feelings, blame, incrimination) and 20% on solutions, both are competing for the same bandwidth. ‘Problems’ win on amount of airtime? You’ll have more. It’s a promise.
You may not like it. Don’t blame Psychology. These truths are hard to swallow by Homo Sapiens, I know.