Updated: Nov 16, 2021
Pros become practitioners of their craft by studying and practicing the right things. Anything you do as a manager or leader can affect those around you and is essential to the job description. These aren’t passive roles you just come by, but positions that require a skillset you can practice and employ. This series will dive deep into what managing like a practitioner looks like and focus on aspects of the role you don't typically see in workshops, textbooks, and social media. Behavior science doesn’t claim to know all the answers. Instead, it provides a methodology and skillset to help you find them yourself. This series' purpose is to translate those tools to help you better inform your experiences as a manager, leader, or coach.
Almost everything you do as a manager affects the behavior of someone. It's a central part of the job description. Whether you are a powerful executive or shift manager – it's not just a position you hold; it's a skillset you employ. Often taking the form of a title earned, a raise, and access to better stuff, a manager can take on different meanings and fill various roles across an organization. It obviously means more responsibility and longer hours. Usually, the subtle shift in the job description gets missed – from being a pro at doing tasks to understanding why and how others are doing their jobs. Your job is to get people to respond reliably to the things you say and do. In this way, management and leadership relate to behavior science - they both aim to understand and predict people's behavior. Even if you're managing budgets, computers, or schedules, it doesn't change. This is possible because people respond reliably to company goals and directives – mainly through their relationship with money. This is true for all management positions, whether dealing with customers, suppliers, or internal operations. The leadership (with management and coaching) role is one of the most nuanced and innovative positions out there, and maybe the most opinionated.
We have serial passive-income-preneurs with targeted workshops. Bro-science wizzes with newly revealed, never seen before secrets. MBAs with mounds of management theories and case studies. Coaches and speakers with 3-easy-step-systems to a successful everything. Tried-and-true lifers that just "know how things are done." Social media networking pros with quotes and memes (#leadership). And consultant know-it-alls writing blog posts about it. With all of this, ask yourself: what do you hear the most while at work? The left side or the right side?
There's still lots of work to do. There are so many "experts" in behavior because we're constantly surrounded by people doing things. That's what humans do – for better or worse, we're very good at drawing conclusions based on what we've seen, smelled, heard, and touched. It's a truly remarkable skill. However, when we rely on these conclusions, we take shortcuts and miss important details. This becomes a problem when things, like behavior, become nuanced. We start to rely on potentially inaccurate information that doesn't match the exact needs of the situation in front of us.
Let's look at an example. Can you name the 3 laws of physics or calculate a moving object's mass/velocity ratio? Kudos to you if you can. Even without this knowledge, you can still manage the laws of physics like a superhero. This happens every time you turn the steering wheel of a massive chunk of metal around a corner without killing yourself – a monumental but relatively routine task. You start driving around a lot of corners and have become good at it. You can explain what steps you take to go around corners and show others how to go around corners. But if I told you to round the corner faster, would you just increase your speed and hit the gas pedal? To round the corner more efficiently, you need to approach the turn from a wider angle, recognize the apex of the turn, be in the right gear, apply the correct brake pressure, etc. It's not a physics degree but understanding this basic approach to cornering gives you the tools to better inform your experience. Not just to manage this turn more efficiently but other turns you haven't yet experienced. It gives you specific skills to practice and concepts to base goals around to track improvements. You become more proficient at turning through our approach to the task.
Management is a dynamic position. You can study models, read case studies, have years on the job, and be a leadership meme aficionado. Still, you'll probably run into a situation in the next few weeks that doesn't look like anything else. There are policies, processes, models, data, systems, checks, and balances to use as a guide. It takes a proficient manager to know when to apply them and how to use them, or if they're even working. Or else you're just out there going for the gas pedal. The most useful application of behavior science is to help provide a practical framework for approaching your role as manager, leader, and coach. Providing skills to learn and practice to apply your experience, education, and resources more effectively.
Good practitioners are aware of the pitfalls and traps that come along with their profession. Let's go over two of the biggest things to look out for, really anywhere in life that can pressure us and others to start taking shortcuts and drawing wrong conclusions. This often takes the form of name-calling, lazy explanations, emotional outbursts, power trips, self-preservation, avoidance, biases, not enforcing policies, fudging data, reactive management, unequal treatment, and so on.
The most overlooked factors affecting our job performance don't even happen at work. We often talk about burnout as working too many hours, but there is more to the story than just the number of hours worked. When you work more, you are doing less of other things. No matter how good you've gotten at compartmentalizing or hiding, it's impossible to separate your work and personal life. You can say, "not me," it doesn't matter. We need the other things. We're humans. We're all unique, complicated, and notoriously bad workers. We have weird habits, desires, and hobbies. We have emotions and secret motivations. And kids, appointments, and pets, we get sick and need to sleep, and there is just…so much good YouTube content. We may get better at hiding it, become pros even, but we can't just turn things off.
Most managers easily spend over 40 hours a week at work, and fatigue, family life, and health issues can change how we approach the job. Hell, it may be just because of traffic. This also works both ways. Our work schedules change the way approach our personal life as well. On any day, your plate is filled with dozens of different activities and pressures to manage. Just to get to work and direct people going through the same things. Oh, and don't forget - put on a smile on your face, go after those goals, and don't let anything hold you back! #leadership
Our life's daily pressures and demands are good enough to see how easy and valuable it can be to take shortcuts and draw conclusions. This can look like something small, like eating unhealthy fast food to save time, or something big like fudging numbers to get a raise. There are many good time-management and self-management tools out there and a vast world of checklists, reminders, and productivity managers. Be wary, they don't just magically work. You have to be sure to dedicate the time to use them. You can also utilize professional allies and therapists. Of course, these tools will help improve your approach to work and life. I always recommend taking the time to find some that work for you. Even something as simple as a checklist can help you from taking shortcuts in your day. The thing is, none of them will make it go away. Things will always keep happening, and you have to adjust. The right approach is to be aware of it, plan for it, and understand how these variables affect your work life and those around you. Allow it to inform your experiences about managing your life, work, and the people around you. When these pressures start to pile up, you will be warier, and you can practice skills to help you become more proficient in avoiding the pitfalls.
We're often hesitant to admit when demands get overwhelming because "powering on" is incentivized. Humans are also generally unreliable when evaluating and describing their own health and the harmful effects of their lifestyle. This is why it helps to proactively use job aids to help manage tasks, keep a balance, and keep open communication with someone you trust – build it into your schedule if you must. Another skill to practice is to make an effort to ask more meaningful questions of your employees, your peers, and your bosses. This two-way communication can help you gain valuable information, making you a better problem solver and more agile manager. Building feedback loops into your decision-making and utilizing the people your decisions most affect and helps build trust. These loops also provide a social barometer should the pressure mount, and you're tempted to take, or have inadvertently taken, some destructive shortcuts.
The Power Dynamic
Whatever level of manager or leader you are – you have more power than those on your team. You can make decisions that affect the well-being, the money, the time, the health, and the safety of others that don't hold that same power over you. Think about it, if this was any other relationship, it would be a toxic one.
No matter how "cool" or "relatable" you are, this dynamic does not go away. When you use it for good, you inspire trust. When you use it in a disingenuous way, you get fear and resentment. You don't need a behavior expert to tell you this, I know. But why does it continue to occur so much? If you read the memes, it should be easy to be an eternally benevolent and all-knowing leader whenever we're called upon (#leadership). The reality is that both trust and fear are great motivators. They both can get the job done. There's only one sustainable and healthy option – but it's also more challenging to do. Positive reinforcement (adding good things) and negative reinforcement (removing bad things) are much more robust at affecting behavior than negative punishment (removing good things) and positive punishment (adding bad things). Still, they often take extra time to plan and execute effectively. When we don't have the time, or the skills, to use constructive tools to manage people's actions, we resort to more accessible and more destructive means. If this happens enough without recourse, it becomes a habit or a management style you rely on.
We're humans. The closer the pressures are to our daily lives – the quicker we overlook the details and revert to quick conclusions, shortcuts, and the gas pedal. We can forever debate the origins of the need for control and the inequitable accountability that comes with positions of power. The bottom line is that being vigilant to your power's conditions and ways it may affect you and those around you improves your approach and informs experiences. You are managing like a practitioner.
A great way to help you practice equalizing the power dynamic and gain more trust as a manager is to be open to feedback. Not just any feedback, but information from the people you are tasked to manage or lead. Give them a seat at the table and make fewer one-way communication channels like declarations, memos, and company statements. You make decisions about them and their work – it only makes sense to let them have a say, even if you can't do it. The Fair-Process Model shows some great practical examples of how this practice impacts employees' acceptance of decisions made in the workplace.
The Bad Seeds
One of the most insidious bad seeds in management has been the idolization of ultra-macho management styles. We grew up watching people like Vince Lombardi, Tony La Rusa, and Bob Knight kick and scream their way to being hailed the top coaches of all time. I'm personally fond of Bill Cowher, infamous for sticking his chin out and grimacing at players who made a mistake. The Chin! He's in the hall of fame but would probably be a horrible manager (he may do well in the restaurant industry). Historically, the media has profiled eccentric leaders with a heavy-handed disciplinary style, filling the airwaves with sound bites and unsustainable management practices (see Lee Iacocca). They were models for whole generations of people who have become leaders and managers. Do you see where I'm going with this? When we get placed in positions where the answer isn't apparent or something doesn't quite work out, we tend to take shortcuts and rely on faulty conclusions. We hit the gas pedal. Where do you think we turn? Practices we've been exposed to, much like the kid-turned-adult reverting to their parents' rules (good or bad) to inform their novel adult experiences.
Another pervasive aspect of management is the reliance on traditional psychological theory. Not all psychology is terrible, and most is good! However, there's not another major field of study that based its major claims on fudged data and made-up stuff. Years of focus on horoscope-type personality tests, and poorly spent money, have laid the groundwork for some of the most unfortunate approaches to explaining behavior in the workplace: attaching the causes of behavior to some trait instead of looking to other more practical reasons of performance. One of the defining characteristics of behavior science is that we look for causal relationships in places that can be defined, measured, and studied. These relationships exist between people's actions and their surroundings. Most problems in the workplace originated from the conditions set up around people, and those with the most ability to affect conditions in the workplace, are managers and leaders. Going back to the first diagram, which comments do you think most accurately reflect this dynamic? The left side is filled with typical phrases that push that responsibility onto other sources. The approach on the right demonstrates the skills of a pro, one that recognizes how work conditions affect behavior, also their power to effect change. A pro is sure to cross off the boxes under the most control before diving into conclusions and hitting the gas pedal. Actively practicing skills that help avoid pitfalls will leave you in better positions to make decisions that your current situations require.
In part 2 of this series, we will go over some strategies to help improve your ability to recognize and explain the causes of people's behavior. Covering why language is so important to combat some of the pitfalls outlined here to better inform your practices as a manager practitioner.