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John Watson, founder of the psychological school of behaviorism

The hopes and sometimes fears of business leadership have led many to pursue the creation of team based organizations, sometimes called autonomous or self-managing teams. This has been particularly popular in manufacturing operations where the need for increased productivity and flexibility have been very high. It has been very clear that organizations can no longer pursue the traditional approach to managing people. The primary sources for alternative models have come from the business schools of the United States, the consultants who serve industry (many from the universities), and the published works of the professors and consultants. The majority of this work is however based on an underlying philosophy that came to business by way of psychology and behavioral psychology in particular which was developed in the United States. This psychology has also been coupled with the philosophy of the physical sciences and its functionalist and objective approach to understanding people and things.

The behavioral approach to psychology and therefore to business is uniquely American and had its birth and development, beginning in the first third of this century. To receive funding to establish schools of psychology, the behaviorist school of psychology, led by James Watson promised to supply the fundamental laws governing all human activity, irrespective of the context, and the fundamental science of human affairs by which to ensure the control of people. With such a promise, this approach became the primary and in fact only school or philosophy of human psychological research until very recent years. While other nations proceeded with a broader look at human beings, American business was provided the singular philosophy of behavior modification which is now becoming embedded in the new generation of work design and improvement program design.

It is possible to see the inconsistencies of the behavioral approach to self managing teams by looking at how the premises of behavioral design play out in a design.

1. Behaviorists see motivation as an externally or environmentally determined force, where a developmental philosophy and the foundation of teams is based on motivation being an external and internal force with the internal force having a guiding position when appropriate capability is developed. The behavioral philosophy leads to the emphasis on feedback and evaluation from external sources rather than self understanding and self development which is more necessary to personal and organizational development processes

2. Most team based designs utilize work systems that require people to develop within the system and toward the criteria of the system. This comes from the behavioral theory of humans as adapting to an environment through working within the proscribed systems. A developmental design works with designs where the systems themselves are evolved continuously by people as a part of their development. Each individual can cause an evolution in the work systems based on work they are doing and are not limited by the system and its criteria or specifications. The behaviorists saw achievement as something people do to be accepted by their peers and superiors, rather than something people do to move a whole system forward. There is no systems theory in behavioral psychology. The source of skill block systems and pay for knowledge or any other pay for predetermined criteria is behaviorism and these systems work to limit the possibilities of developing the potential of people, businesses, or markets as these are all dynamic and changing more rapidly than any system. The proscribed system can also only be based on yesterday’s ideas of the needed skills and knowledge.

3. Behaviorists believe that there are different levels of intelligence and performance among people and that these differences can be placed in a rating and ranking system. This belief has evolved into an allocation model as it is applied in schools (e.g. grading on the curve) and businesses (20% high performers, 20% above average, etc.). This belief has led to sophisticated instrumentation and measurement devices for calibrating human performance. In a developmental psychology and developmental organization, there is only a searching for the uniqueness of each individual and no comparisons of skills, performance, or contribution — or role models. The measurements are against aims and objectives set by persons in pursuit of development — of themselves and the business.

4. In behavioral psychology the individual can be subordinated to the collective — usually stated as approximation of the desired behavior — by the appropriate stimulus and response cycles and can thus be caused to behave in a predictable way by understanding the appropriate positive or negative reinforcement to administer. The developmental approach works instead by the development of a self-conscious person who can become self-disciplining and self-accountable. The person is seeking to understand themselves as a unique person and the unique contribution they can make to the business and organization. They are not subsumed by the team, nor do they lose their identity. Only through their uniqueness can they contribute their part to producing the effects that stakeholders to the business desire. Most businesses have no idea how to do this, so they create work designs that effectively obliterate the individual identities/essences. This underlying theory has led to the almost epidemic proliferation of reward, recognition, and incentive programs.

5. In the behaviorist model, reality is something that is universal for every person and can be observed by the senses and experienced directly. Recent research using other psychological models has demonstrated a “reality” that is highly interpretative and is at least partially constructed by the filters and mental models through which we view the world. In a developmental approach to organizational and work design, the various interpretations of reality are utilized and valued, but also understood as interpretations of reality and as subject to reflection on and validation by each individual. The major flaws in feedback systems design come from this underlying behavioral philosophy.

6. The behaviorist model is based on a reductionist view or elemental view of the world. This view is the paradigm that sees only parts and in order to understand something reduces any whole into parts. Any summary of the whole is seen as merely an adding up of the parts and parts that are fixed and unchanging. In a developmental philosophy, the view of the world is more wholistic and systemic. All elements are understood in the context of a series of greater or larger systems and are seen as dynamic and evolving at every moment. Most feedback processes, goal setting, and measurement systems are based on an elemental view of the world. The initiatives to be acted on and measured are studied and implemented in a fragmented way. Organizations provide sections in the feedback forms by each type of behavior, and goals by target areas. Neither of these provide relationships to a grander scheme of things. The developmental philosophy works from a greater system perspective inward to smaller and smaller systems so that all those involved can see the relevance and significance of their efforts and appropriate direction of their development.

For more on the fallacies of behaviorism, especially the practice of feedback, see chapters from my book No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work here on Medium. Find the introduction to the book here:

About Carol Sanford

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Carol Sanford is a regenerative business educator, the award winning author of The Regenerative Business: Redesign Work, Cultivate Human Potential, Achieve Extraordinary Outcomes, and executive in residence and senior fellow in social innovation at Babson College. She has worked with fortune 500 executives and rock star entrepreneurs for 40 years, helping them to innovate and grow their businesses by growing their people. Learn more about Carol and her work at her website.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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