The classic article "Neuroscience of Leadership" (strategy+business) is several years old now, but it's still worth reading. Or rereading if you haven't done so recently. I thought of the article last week when I saw someone recommending a management approach based on behaviorism. Specifically, I thought of these words by the article's authors David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz:
Many existing models for changing people’s behavior are drawn from a field called behaviorism. The field emerged in the 1930s and was led by psychologist B.F. Skinner and advertising executive John B. Watson, building on Ivan Pavlov’s famous concept of the condi- tioned response: Associate the ringing of a bell with food, and a dog can be made to salivate at the sound. The behaviorists generalized this observation to people, and established an approach to change that has some- times been caricatured as: “Lay out the M&Ms.” For each person, there is one set of incentives — one combination of candy colors — that makes the best motivator. Present the right incentives, and the desired change will naturally occur. If change doesn’t occur, then the mix of M&M colors must be adjusted.
Yet there is plenty of evidence from both clinical research and workplace observation that change efforts based on typical incentives and threats (the carrot and the stick) rarely succeed in the long run. For example, when people routinely come late to meetings, a manager may reprimand them. This may
chasten latecomers in the short run, but it also draws their attention away from work and back to the problems that led to lateness in the first place. Another manager might choose to reward people who show up on time with public recognition or better assignments; for those who are late, this too raises anxiety and reinforces the neural patterns associated with the habitual problem. Yet despite all the evidence that it doesn’t work, the behaviorist model is still the dominant paradigm in many organizations. The carrot and stick are alive and well.
The authors go on to write:
The next big field to emerge in psychology after behaviorism was the humanist movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Also called the person-centered approach, the field was inspired by such thinkers as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. This school of thought assumed that self-esteem, emotional needs, and values could provide leverage for changing behavior. The prevailing model of humanist psychology involved helping people reach their potential through self-actualization — bringing forth hidden capacities and aspirations. Therapists and trainers left behind the carrot and stick and focused on empathy. They listened to people’s problems, attempted to understand them on their own terms, and allowed a holistic solution to emerge.
Click to read the rest of the article.
Note (added February 27, 2012): Related blog post from Ed Batista: "Organizational Development: Is Humanism Overrated?"