Yesterday evening I went to go hang out with my friend, his wife, his baby, and his two dogs.
Both of his dogs are amazing, but one (an English Bulldog) is particularly affectionate.
By the end of the evening, my pants were covered in hair and most of my arms and legs were covered in a thin layer of dog-lick.
I’m not going to lie—I’m in love with this dog… so I didn’t really mind the charm offensive.
But, at one point, she started to go a little overboard—jumping up and scraping her paws (and sharp-ish claws) across my legs, even drawing blood at one point.
To combat this, my friend did a little old-fashioned dog training—squirting her in the face with a spray bottle.
Each time she started to exhibit the undesired behavior he would give her a quick, gentle squirt.
It worked like a charm.
And this got me thinking about one of my favorite topics: good ol’ behaviorism.
The two core laws of behaviorism are:
- Anything that results in a reward is done more frequently
- Anything that results in pain/punishment is done less frequently
But just because these laws are obvious doesn’t mean that they aren’t powerful.
Much of our behavior is dictated by this simple logic.
We touch a hot stove as a kid and learn to never to it again (punishment).
We tell a joke in class and are instantly rewarded with a wave of laughter from our classmates—and, before we know it, we’re the class clown.
We ace our first math quiz and enjoy the praise and attention we get from our teachers and parents.
This is also how our talents unfold. We try a bunch of random things as a kid. We’re bad at most of them but a couple of them come easily. These activities then bring us praise, compliments, and attention from others, and so decide to do those activities more… and, voila! We discover and double down on our natural strengths.
As I sat on my friend’s couch last night, I kept thinking about the simple logic of punishment and reward, and how, if used diligently, it can achieve amazing things—a well-trained dog is just one example.
If you think about it, management is just a more complex application of these two principles.
You set up clear goals & desired behaviors for your reports, and reward them when they’re on track and provide critical feedback and some stern words (punishment) when they go astray.
I realize that speaking this way about people sounds kind of terrible, and I think that’s one of the many reasons behaviorism fell out of favor in the late 50s and early/mid 60s. Thinking about people in these mechanical terms is a bit cringe-inducing… but that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful perspective with valuable tools that can be pulled out from time to time.
For every tool there’s a time and place. Be sure to keep an open mind and collect all of the different behavioral perspectives you can, even if some of them push against the vision of the world you hold dear.
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