Is your boss a pigeon? Yes, really. An American psychologist, author and inventor called B F Skinner spent years studying pigeons. This may seem a strange hobby for a Harvard-educated specialist in human behavior, but spending time with his birds wasn’t for relaxation.
He discovered that if a pigeon in a cage happens to be pecking at a mirror when food is delivered, it will launch itself at the mirror every time it’s hungry. The bird develops the mistaken belief that attacking the mirror and the arrival of food are connected.
From birds to people
Expanding on his work with common pigeons, Prof Skinner went on to experiment with an advanced version of this phenomenon with human subjects.
He developed what he called a teaching machine. This was aimed at coaching a broad range of students – pre-schoolers to adults – in a variety of skills such as reading and music. One version was designed to teach rhythm.
His device would play a rhythmic pattern which the subjects had to follow by tapping it out on the machine. Gradually, the patterns became more complex and the students were rewarded with higher marks each time their skills improved.
Another machine contained a list of questions that could be viewed one at a time through a small window. Every time the student answered the question correctly, the machine delivered a reward.
Professor Skinner’s work has been proven and developed further by modern behaviorists, so we now know a great deal about how humans react to stimulus in social and work situations.
His pioneering work in this field led to the development of open learning and computer-assisted instruction
Do you do things without thinking?
Many of us, having achieved a result in a certain way, find it difficult to adapt our thinking to consider alternative methods. For example, a salesperson may have had years of success by cold-calling business prospects on the phone.
Even with the world-wide coverage of email and the popularity of websites and social media, many still insist on doing it the old-fashioned way. They believe it’s more personal, friendlier and, of course, easier to push for a deal when the prospect is captive on the other end of the line.
At certain levels of an organization, this reluctance to consider different strategies to achieve a set of objectives is easily dealt with by training and discipline.
With leaders, though, the problem gets serious
Many occupants of the C-suite believe they’ve reached the top by following, and never deviating from, a strict set of principles. It’s hardly surprising that, having achieved success in this way, they are wary of any threat to their belief system. They’re showing a remarkable similarity to the pigeon’s way of thinking.
They will insist that their’s is the only solution: “It’s my way or the highway,” as some brash execs are fond of claiming. In the workplace, these can be dangerous people. Despite mountains of evidence demonstrating that their proposed actions are wrong, they will insist on following their principles which, by now, are their holy grail.
Build an evidence-based case
There are two ways you can deal with a leader like this, assuming they’re not about to retire soon. Both involve marshalling as much accurate data to support your case as you can get your hands on.
Here you have to be careful about the weight you give to research, especially the qualitative kind, where respondents share opinions and feelings. Leaders from the My Way school of management are suspicious of anything that challenges their dogma and will consider the findings to be weak and inconclusive compared to their own ‘proven principles’.
Using your evidence, try to find a way towards a solution that requires the leader to take only a small step away from their comfort zone. You might suggest a small test of, say, a new marketing technique which you can run side by side with the boss’ suggestion.
Failing that, gather the support of co-workers who agree with you and are prepared to help you pitch the evidence in support of the new strategy. Faced with a determined team backed by persuasive data and sound analysis, even the stubbornest boss might just decide to fold their cards this time to see what happens.
There’s no guarantee you’ll get your own way and, if your leader finds your passion for change threatening, they may choose to send you away from the front line. If they carry on pecking the mirror, that may be your signal to move on.
There’s no guarantee you’ll get your own way and, if your leader finds your passion for change threatening, they may choose to send you away from the front line.