Bringing out the best in people

Thanks to Thiruvengadam Vasudevan, who recommended it, I just finished reading Aubrey C. Daniels’s book Bringing out the best in people – how to apply the astonishing power of positive reinforcement.

It is a phenomenal book  with page after page of insights. Although published first in 1999, it still rings true. First, Dr. Daniels captures your attention by railing against common-sense based management and contemporary management advice from gurus like Tom Peters’s famous Management by Walking Around (MBWA) idea.  But what really captivated me was Dr. Daniels’s assertion that –  Change Management is not really as hard as its made out to be and that change is natural and that it is generally accepted if it helps people.

That is contrary to what I have believed so far about Change Management (do a search on Change Management on this blog). Recently Sutton and Pfeffer’s Hard Facts book has popularized evidence-based management. But Dr. Daniels has explained in this book, how facts and evidence can be used to improve performance and bring about change, and it is 7 years older to boot.  The fundamental concept that you learn about behavior from this book is – the ABC of behavior – as Dr. Daniels calls it, where A is Antecedents, B is Behaviors and C is consequences.

Antecedents are what create favorable circumstances for a particular behavior to occur once and the consequences ensure that the behavior continues to occur. He illustrates this concept with a superb example – for years the anti-smoking lobby tried warning labels of different types but none of it had any real effect (these are antecedents according to this ABC theory because they try to create an environment where a certain behavior is unfavorable). However, when smoking started getting banned from places of work and smokers started attracting negative social reaction, it had a huge effect on curtailing smoking.

Essentially consequences of being a smoker are so bad that most people are forced to quit. It will be helpful to understand that Consequences are the same as Reinforcements for the purposes of this book.  The major insight here, which is somewhat counter-intuitive, is that all behavior is a function of the consequences or reinforcements. The basic problem that Dr. Daniels is pointing out is that most of the  incentives/dis-incentives that we use in typical corporations are ill-conceived without regard to the ABC theory.

He then explores the consequences or reinforcements area and shows how consequences are generally of 3 dimensions – positive (P) or negative (N), Immediate (I) or Future (F), certain (C) or uncertain (U). He takes the example of seat belt usage to elucidate –  People generally avoid wearing seatbelts because Negative (one more step and takes more time to start driving), Immediate (time is spent now), Certain (its certain to delay me now) consequences outweigh Positive (protects me), Future (sometime in the unknowable future), Uncertain (Only if an accident happens to me).

In general, Dr. Daniels has found that people don’t resist change if it provides Positive Immediate Certain (PIC) consequences (positive reinforcements in other words).  So in essence, he says things like Rewards (PFU), bonuses (PFU) or for that matter your salary which you keep getting regardless are not helpful in promoting useful behavior.  This is a huge eye-opener because companies spend a lot of time in developing compensation plans.

He also points out with clear examples how negative reinforcements don’t also work in the long run. They are useful to bring about a change but don’t offer long term benefits. Dr. Daniels in another eye-opener proves how deadlines prove to be negative reinforcements and also how goals can if applied inappropriately become negative reinforcements. He has one whole chapter on goal setting to avoid this problem. He totally demolishes the stretch goal idea which is widely practiced in many organizations.

In fact, he goes one step further and demonstrates how positive reinforcements are the only way to capture discretionary effort, effort that is put in by the employee of their own volition above and beyond their job description. If this happens a lot in your company, you can know that you have one hell of a motivated company. Overall, Dr. Daniels puts into play a cogent, coherent set of arguments as to why positive reinforcements bring you the most benefit in the long run.

This may be what you all along suspected but Dr. Daniels has provided well-thought out principles and evidence in support  of it. Now, in the spirit of evidence based management, just so we don’t get carried away by Dr. Daniels – there are some counter-examples to Dr. Daniels’s theory. It  may not apply totally to all type of companies/workers. I think it will be especially harder to apply to Academia, some types of Tech workers and also Start ups. Most startups are built on the foundation of being able to make ungodly amounts of money after the IPO (Positive Future Uncertain).  We can also call PFUs as risk. There are a lot of professions/jobs out there that are contingent upon taking a lot of risk.

Notes & References:
1. If you are into this whole crappy management advice thing – you may want to read Chris Argyris’s masterly work – Flawed Advice and the Management Trap. I read this book a while ago – it is written in what I call a erudite style but its another excellent book.  He begins his work by demolishing 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.

2. Bob Sutton of Hard Facts book fame has started blogging. Very interesting. check it out.

3. Bob also has an interesting Change This manifesto “Management Advice: which 90% is crap” (Via George Ambler)

4. If you want to know more about startups and their culture, read Paul Graham‘s insightful essays about startups.
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