‘Consequences’ Articles

Life Hacking with Behavioral Science

Guest post by Francisco Gomez

AppWallMany of us are in the deliberate search for better, easier, faster, more effective ways of getting things done.  We look for optimization in all sorts of pursuits; fitness, cooking, business travel, finances, technology, and so on.   The explosive business of Apps is, in great part, driven by our desire to optimize how we manage our lives. Some might say we are in search of the best and greatest “life hack.” What is a life hack, you ask?  Wikipedia provides this succinct summary:

Life hacking refers to any productivity trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life; in other words, anything that solves an everyday problem of a person in a clever or non-obvious way….Coined in the 1980s in hacker culture, the term became popularized in the blogosphere and is primarily used by computer experts who suffer from information overload or those with a playful curiosity in the ways they can accelerate their workflow in ways other than programming.*

If you explore the term “life hacking” on the internet, you will find that it covers a lot of ground. There are blogs, e-books, articles and entire websites dedicated to life hacking.  Not surprisingly, these sources vary a great deal in content and quality.  From them, you might gather information ranging from the fastest way to peel a banana (it models what chimpanzees do, in case you’re wondering) to tips on boosting your confidence and learning foreign languages at maximum speeds. You can learn how to decrease your anxiety, get the most out of meditation and make Barista quality coffee from your own home.  And, as is generally the case with online sources, it’s a buyer beware world.  Some of them are important behavioral practices that can genuinely enhance our lives, and others will make you wish you’d invested your time elsewhere.

Like most, I have interests in maximizing performance for personal reasons but it is also an important aspect of my career as a behavior-based business consultant.  One of my favorite aspects of the job is helping the best organizations get even better. Rarely do our clients call us to fix something “broken.” Certainly, behavioral science is a powerful and proven approach to mitigating problem behavior at the individual and organizational level. However, it is also an optimization mechanism, capable of producing the highest levels of creativity, quality, productivity and efficiency in what might already be high performance. It gives you the framework to target and systematically improve behaviors that are significant to you.  So, when it comes to managing the behavior of self and others, even just a basic understanding of behavioral science can be the ultimate life hack.  An understanding of a few core principles from behavioral science will help you separate the wheat from the chaff in the jumble of life hacks and personal improvement strategies out there while giving you the tools to build your own for your many ventures.

The behavioral science tools and principles that can help you increase your productivity, creativity and expedite learning and fluency are many.  The creative and effective use of reinforcement alone is one of the most powerful life hacks I can think of.  To assess or develop your own behavior-influencing life hacks, consider this starter set of tools and concepts:

  • Shaping: This might be the most obvious source for a life hack and it is one of the most powerful and efficient ways to learn. Adopting a new skill-especially a complex one such as learning a new language- can have its share of frustrations. We might feel like achieving fluency is distant and the road there too difficult. Often we give up on our goal because it took too much effort to reach the target. This is where shaping comes in. It’s defined by breaking down a skill into achievable and reinforceable baby steps and systematically teaching (or learning) each one. This allows the learner to progress and build a solid foundation on the skill. It also allows them to contact plenty of reinforcement along the way which keeps them fully engaged and motivated to learn. You want your employees to use that complicated new accounting software? Learn how to separate and reinforce those baby steps and shape their behavior. You want to learn how to play an instrument? Learn how to shape your own behavior.
  • Behavioral Cusps: These consist of identifying behaviors or skill sets that once learned will accelerate exponential growth into completely different learning areas. One good example of a cusp might be learning how to read. Once that skill is acquired, a person’s ability to develop in other diverse areas grows exponentially. Now they can read and learn about history, natural science, current events, etc… I see this as a particularly powerful and efficient way to help a new employee transition into their role; identify and then teach the most critical skills that once learned, will expedite growth in other areas that are important to their function. In essence, you could map out and lead them from one cusp to another- expanding the branches of their learning tree and truly maximizing the value they bring to themselves and your organization.
  • PIC/NIC Analysis®: This proprietary troubleshooting tool can help you figure out why people make certain choices. It’s a great way to get into somebody else’s shoes and figure out what variables might be motivating them. If your objective is to change behavior, it’s important to know with precision what the influencing variables are that you need to change.
  • Minimizing Response Cost: This is all about strategically decreasing the amount of effort for the desired behavior to occur. If you want the performer to engage in a certain behavior, it’s much more effective to decrease the amount of effort they need to invest in doing what you want them to do.   Although easily derived from behavioral literature, I first learned this hack from reading Ernest Hemingway’s tips on avoiding writer’s block (and yes…I used his tip to write this blog).  To quote him directly; 

“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck.”

Hemingway decreased the amount of effort for getting into the flow of writing by always leaving a partially full page to begin with the next day. Although I use this for my writing, an understanding of behavior has helped me generalize this approach to several other tasks. For example, I get my workout clothes and equipment sorted, next to my bed and ready to put on for those much too early 5:30am workouts. If I need to get up and start a search for my workout clothes, fitness tracker and water bottle, I may end up slapping that snooze button instead. That additional effort might be too much to sustain the desired behavior. The point is to never start on a blank page. Set yourself up with a head start and increase the likelihood you will engage in the desired behavior.

Think of behavioral interventions (including life hacks) as recipes for improvement. Behavioral principles are the ingredients that will produce the optimization you are looking for in your own as well as other people’s behavior. A solid understanding of a few behavioral principles will give you the ingredients to build your own recipes for behavior change. These days it’s easy to be overwhelmed with the limitless amount of information pitching us different approaches to improving our physical and mental health, relationships, and management styles, to name a few.  It’s a challenge to choose the most effective method in the face of so many options. Before we undergo medical treatment most of us expect for the methodology to have been tested through the rigor of the scientific method.  The above tools and concepts are derived from the systematic study and application of behavioral principles supported by over a century of research. When investing in a life hack intended to influence your behavior and that of others, why wouldn’t you rely on scientifically proven tools and principles to lead your way?

You may also want to check out The 46 Most Brilliant Life Hacks Every Human Being Needs to Make Life Easier.

Talk Less and Deliver More Consequences To Effect Workplace Change

Talk Less and Deliver More Consequences To Effect Workplace ChangeWhy do businesses have so much trouble introducing change? Why do managers complain that they talk until they’re blue in the face but employees still resist adopting new methods?

The problem is that the managers are focusing on talking instead of delivering the necessary consequences for change. Most people, including parents, think that speaking louder, longer and meaner will get others to do what they want them to do. They apparently have forgotten that actions speak louder than words. These talkers tell their employees or children the same thing over and over, but they vary the message or its intensity in hopes that one alteration will bring about the desired action…

Read the entire post at Rescue A CEO.

Lessons from the VA and General Motors: Don’t Manage by Results

LESSONS FROM THE VA AND GENERAL MOTORS: DON'T MANAGE BY RESULTSAs the world has recently seen, relying too heavily on results and numbers to measure success can have big consequences.  Visit my post at Fast Company for five ways to avoid going down the same path as The Department of Veteran Affairs and General Motors.

Read entire post at Fast Company.

Why GE’s Talent-Review System’s Secret Ingredient is Still a Secret

Why GE’s Talent-Review System’s Secret Ingredient is Still a SecretRaghu Krishnamoorthy, a vice president at GE, recently wrote an HBR-Online article about GE’s secret ingredient to its purported Talent-Review System.  One can assume by reading the comments on the web that the most common takeaway from the article is that GE managers spend a lot of time with the employees being reviewed.   What the article did not give was many of the details about the system itself and maybe that is on purpose, since they want to keep the secret.  To paraphrase Alabama’s legendary football coach, Bear Bryant, when asked by Ga. Tech Coach Bobby Dodd why he didn’t tell coaches at football clinics what he really did, Bear said, “Why would I tell that to the competition?”

However, the secret as it was stated in the article “…lies in the intensity of the discussions about performance and values.”  What does intensity mean?  Yelling, and screaming?  You usually don’t call positive discussions intense.  Talking doesn’t change much behavior and a lot of talking doesn’t improve it very much.  The article didn’t say where most of the discussions take place.  I suspect they were in the boss’s office, in the break room or over lunch.  There was no mention of observing work behavior, which is by far the most valuable piece of data to evaluate and coach.

Krishnamoorthy also says that it is not uncommon for a manager’s assessment and feedback to be questioned by his or her own manager.  In other words, the person who spends the most time with the evaluee is second guessed by his boss who at best can collect only a limited sample of interactions and thereby increases the rating error but whose opinions carry the most weight.  If it is not uncommon, it indicates that there is a problem in the rating system.

While behaviorally speaking, there is much that can be approved with this system the thing that bothered me the most is the statement, “We continue to use a nine-block grid.”  It is only the best of managers who can make the grid a positive experience unless the person is rated in the top right-hand block. That is a “high potential, exceeding expectations.”  These grids wherever they are used, are subjective, divisive and competitive and in my opinion should not be used as the most they do is create unhealthy relationships.  GE announced publically that they had abandoned the “forced-ranking system” and this is better but not by much.

With apologies to Mr. Krishnamoorthy, I understand that in an article of this length, it is difficult to detail all parts of this process and I may have come to some wrong conclusions about the process.  As they say, I only know what I read.  I did some work at GE many years ago and I am sure that my data are old.  However, this article did not have to be written but as written it sounds like GE’s secret ingredient is safe.  The fact that GE has produced some outstanding leaders will not be questioned by many.  I suggest that the process as presented in this article is not the secret and certainly not one to model after if you are trying to make employees as successful as they can be.

Leveraging the 4:1 Ratio—In Sports and in Business

Leveraging the 4:1 Ration in sports and businessIt’s built into what we do with our clients, in understanding and applying the science of behavior.  While it may not seem revolutionary, correctly applying the 4:1 Ratio matters and does affect your outcome.

By definition, the 4:1 Ratio is four positives to one negative (or constructive).  What many don’t understand is that in order to shape the behavior you want, you must provide enough positive reinforcement for that behavior to become consistent. This is a great tool to use in business, sports, and even at home. 

Here are two great examples: Business and Sports.

If you want behavior to change, leverage the 4:1.

Want Discretionary Effort? 10 Things to Avoid in the New Year

Discretionary EffortIt’s that time of year when we are inundated with what we should do to start the new year off right. I would be remiss if I didn’t offer advice of my own; the only difference is these are things we should avoid all year round and are essential if you want to earn discretionary effort.

Read entire post at Talent Management Magazine.

More on Discretionary Effort…

Does Money Make You Smart?

j0385807This post originally appeared on Aubrey’s blog 8-19-09 

Let’s say that you make business decisions where the impact on the future of the business is not well-thought out. The decisions are praised by Wall Street but, even so, turn out to waste the resources of the business over the long term. Let’s also say that in an effort to grow the company fast, you buy assets above market value to close the deals quickly, hire talented employees and pay them outlandish wages in order to get up and running as soon as possible. You also have little understanding of how to effectively motivate people but believe that money is most effective. In particular, you believe that money will buy you the right talent, since you believe money is what matters most to talented people. Therefore, you either use salary, bonuses or other perks to motivate them.Then let’s say that as the result of current economic conditions, your company has fallen on hard times in no small part due to the excesses created by your growth strategy and financial excesses. (more…)

Fast Company article on “Stack Ranking”

Motivating EmployeesIt’s hard to believe but Stack Ranking has found its way back into corporations as a means for motivating employees. What will it take for leaders to understand that this practice doesn’t work and in fact produces the opposite effect of what was intended?

I tackle this topic and offer tips for what organizations should do in this latest article in Fast Company: The Evils of ‘Stack Ranking’ and What Companies Should do Instead.

I encourage you to not only read it but share it with others and engage in a discussion about what truly motivates employees to give their best.


Rank and Yank: Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

Rank and YankJack Welch joined the fray about Microsoft’s abandoning “rank and yank” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Jack Welch: ’Rank and Yank’? That’s Not How It’s Done.”   Welch now says that rank and yank was media-created and that it should be more appropriately referred to as “differentiation,” which is a much more caring, humane and employee-centered appraisal process.  I was around when Welch was in his heyday at GE and when every word that Jack said in public ended up in lead articles in magazines and newspapers or on TV and I never remember hearing the word “differentiation.”  What I remember was that Welch had little confidence in his managers’ ability to give employees bad news.  Consequently, he created a system to force them to do what they were unlikely to do effectively: deal with poor performance.

The problem is that differentiation as Welch describes it is not much better than “rank and yank.”  There are critical flaws in both. Whether it is called rank and yank or differentiation, it is the structure and assumptions about human behavior that have made it the most dreaded activity for managers and employees at thousands of businesses worldwide.  While I appreciate that Welch wants his systems to seem more caring, compassionate, etc., he knows better than anyone that in the end it is not about intention but impact.

Lest those who read Mr. Welch’s description of the way differentiation should work actually attempt to implement his ideas, let me take his points one by one and offer a different opinion – one that is based on the science of behavior.

First, there are two things in the op-ed that I agree with:  1. Candor is essential; and 2. Every employee needs to know where he/she stands.  Below are some of the assumptions that Welch claims make differentiation a better, more effective process than the dreaded rank and yank.  Welch claims:

  1. The 20-70-10 distribution is not set in stone – But the ranking or the rating on some curve is set in stone!  It is the heart of the system.  I don’t know where Welch came up with the 20-70-10 distribution, but I doubt if it is data-based.  No company that I know of hires people on a distribution like that.  Would we hire someone who we expect to be at the bottom?  Everyone we hire is expected to be at the top.  Yet no company I know of is happy when all people are rated at the top. That is because we believe performance appraisals of any kind are motivational.  They are not.  Demotivating?  Bet on that.  He says no one thinks that grading in school is cruel.  I don’t want to get started on that because I don’t have enough space to scratch the surface of education. Just let me say that it borders on criminal to promote a student to the next grade when he/she got mostly Cs and Ds.  I believe that the only grade in school should be an A and every student should be coached till he earns it.  (Read my blogs for more on this subject.)
  2. Differentiation’s performance appraisals are not about the numbers – If you believe that one, as the saying goes, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I will sell you real cheap.  All traditional appraisals are about the numbers.  Appraisal of behaviors is rolled into the final number that determines the ranking.  How can you have a ranking without numbers?  Of course, it is about the numbers.
  3. The middle 70 percent know that they are appreciated – Wrong again.  The 70 percent are not idiots.  They are in the middle, and they have been taught that is mediocre.  Who strives to be mediocre?  What they also know is that those in the top 20percent will almost always be in the top 20percent and they will always be in the 70percent.  Motivational?  I don’t think so.
  4. Differentiation management evaluates employees at least once (and preferably twice) a year – The data are clear that annual appraisals do little to change performance.  I do agree that we need to talk to everyone about where they are and where they want to be, but that does not need to be in the form of a performance appraisal.  As I have said often, “The best job you will ever have is one where you know at the end of every workday how well you have done.”  Generally speaking, that job is more likely to be in sports than in business.  In sports, you know how you are doing at every swing of the bat or golf club, after every play not at the end of the year or every six months.  The annual or semi-annual appraisal is too little, too late.  You don’t make a bad process of any kind better by doing it more often.
  5. Differentiation builds great teams  It does not.  It separates employees.  By its very nature, it is a zero-sum game.  Since it is a ranking, there can be only one person at each position on the distribution.  Although I admit that rewarding employees for teamwork will offset some of the negatives associated with the competition engendered by ranking, the most powerful consequences – promotion, assignments and pay – are associated with the ranking.
  6. Differentiation starts with communication While I agree that communication is important to let people know what numbers and behaviors are important, what changes performance is not about communication but about behavioral consequences – what happens to someone as a result of what he or she does or doesn’t do (i.e., behavior).  These consequences communicate the reality of what is essential and what is not.

Although Welch now says that that the distribution, 20, 70, 10, was not set in stone, it was interpreted as such by many inside GE and in hundreds if not thousands of companies outside GE.

See also: OOPS! 13 Management Practices that Waste Time and Money (and what to do instead).

Punishment, Parenting and Safety

Guest post by Judy Agnew

punishment parenting and safety

Recently, I came across an article that caught my eye: Parents’ Harsh Words Might Make Teen Behavior Worse.  As the parent of a 13 year-old and someone who has written extensively on the ill effects of punishment in organizational safety, it only took the first few lines before it struck a chord on both counts:

Most parents yell at their kids at some point.  It often feels like the last option for getting children to pay attention and shape up.” 

When I think of the times I yell as a parent it is born out of frustration—the sense that I have tried everything else and nothing has worked.  There are parallels to the use of negative consequences in safety.  They are often used when management has “tried everything else” and nothing has worked.  They have trained, reminded, prompted, put up signs, etc. and still people engage in at-risk behavior.  The problem, in these instances, both parenting and managing safety, is that we are largely trying to change behavior with antecedents.  Unfortunately antecedents don’t result in lasting behavior change.  Enter the frustration.

Regardless of what prompts it, the critical question is: do negative consequences work?  The research summarized in the article above says no.  In fact, it suggests that negative consequences actually make matters worse.  Those parents who used more “harsh words” when their kids were 13 were more likely to see an increase in poor behavior a year later.  The exact opposite of what most people would expect.  In addition, those teens showed more signs of depression and increased tension in their relationships with their parents.  The article goes on to quote Alan Kazdin, a parenting expert, who confirms that punishment is ineffective at improving behavior.

This is yet another study, in a long line of studies, which warns us of the detrimental effects of punishment.  Increased undesired behavior, more tension, poorer relationships—sounds like a bad recipe for parenting and, similarly, organizational safety.

This article was a good reminder that I am on the cusp of some challenging years ahead with my teenager.  What I need most of all to help my child survive and thrive the next several years is to maintain a good relationship with him.  I need him to talk to me.  I need him to trust me.  I need him to come to me when he has messed up, when he is confused.  The more I yell, take away his phone, ground him (i.e., punish him), the less likely he is to trust, talk and engage with me.

What leaders need to help employees stay safe on the job is no different.  Leaders need employees who will talk to them, report hazards and near misses, share concerns, and trust them.  The more leaders use discipline, negative feedback, critical comments, threats, etc., the less likely employees will trust, talk and engage in safety.

This doesn’t mean there is no place for punishment in parenting or safety.  There is.  But given the side effects, it should be a “last resort” after other positive consequences (not just antecedents) have been used to get desired behaviors to happen more often.  By focusing on what you want, instead of what you don’t want, and positively reinforcing desired behavior, you will find yourself less tempted to use punishment and more importantly, you will be much more effective in your relationships—at home and at work.

Read more about the importance of relationships in Safety in these articles and blogs.

Study the Science of Behavior Analysis in-depth at The Aubrey Daniels Institute.