OCI #17: Look for the Operant
A little toe-dip into behavioral psychology, and some of the best advice I ever got
What’s An Operant?
Every time we talk about rewards, punishments, or consequences, we are drawing on the field of behavioral psychology, which looks at the impact of the environment on human behavior. Although there are a lot of implications for organizational change, which I will discuss in a future post, today I want to focus on one specific thing. This one comes from one of my professors in grad school, who mentored me in the world of consulting as well in the academic setting.
It starts with the idea that there are two kinds of behaviors—respondent and operant.
Respondent behaviors are those that are triggered by some kind of stimulus. That is, something happens in the environment and we respond in a certain way. For example, a loud noise happens (stimulus) and we flinch (response), or someone reaches out to us with open arms (stimulus) and we move toward them for a hug (response).
If you’re familiar with the experiments with Pavlov’s Dog, you know that sometimes these stimulus/response pairings are naturally-occurring combinations (seeing food—>salivating), and sometimes they and sometimes they are “conditioned” combinations in which a neutral stimulus (e.g. ringing a bell) is paired with the naturally-occurring original stimulus (presenting the food and ringing the bell at the same time) with the result that the new stimulus triggers the behavior all by itself (ringing the bell—>salivating).
Operant behaviors—the ones we are focusing on here—are those that are performed without any initial trigger. That is, a person (or rat, or some other living creature) exhibits them without a prior cue (no food, no bell, etc.) One of the reasons operant behaviors are particularly interesting is that they are very responsive to consequences. These are things that happen after the behavior occurs, that can increase or decrease the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated.
As a classic example from psychology labs, a rat moving around in a cage might press a bar, which then releases some food. Over time, if the food continues to show up when the bar is pressed, the rat will press the bar more often.
Operant behaviors and their consequences shape a lot of how we interact with the world. If a person exhibits a behavior and something good happens (a child swears and their mother laughs), they are more likely to exhibit that behavior in the future. If a person exhibits the same behavior and something bad happens (a child swears and their mother frowns and turns away), they are less likely to exhibit that behavior in the future.
However, before we get into thinking about the role of consequences, let’s focus on the first part—the operant.
Looking for the Operant
Here’s the advice I got: Watch for the operant.
What does that mean? It means to pay attention to what people do when they have a free choice of how to act in a situation. This is not as easy as it sounds:
We are often thinking about the behavior we want or expect from others, and sometimes sending signals or cues to guide their responses, rather than just observing.
In many situations, people have limitations on their actions, or have ideas about what they should be doing or what is expected of them, which constrain their behavior to some extent.
When we are able to be with people in situations where they have a lot of flexibility in what to do, we can learn a lot about what’s meaningful, fun, important, or comfortable to them. For example, when I have a day with no particular schedule or expectations, I often spend time playing around with genealogy, listening to music, or cooking. As I observe friends and family, I notice that some people plant gardens, some watch TV, and some gather people and throw a party. Start paying attention. If you watch someone in a room with a lot of other people, do they initiate conversations? Gather a group around them? Sit in a corner?
Why is This Important?
Understanding people’s naturally-occurring behavior is important and useful for several reasons.
As you observe what individuals do, and how they do it, you may see some patterns in what they find intrinsically rewarding. Do they like working with their hands? Playing with designs and patterns? Do they like a steady pace of activity, or alternating bursts of energy with periods of relaxation? Do they like variety, or prefer repetition and predictability?
You may also notice patterns in what people don’t do. For example, you may see that a person doesn’t tend to ask questions or reach out for help, or that they never voluntarily wash the dishes.
Understanding what motivates someone is helpful both inside and outside the workplace. This is a big part of person-job fit—when people do work that allows them to engage in behaviors that are intrinsically pleasant and motivating while delivering results for the organization, they often experience a greater sense of ease, satisfaction, and engagement. And if you have expectations for an employee or a partner that require them to do things that are not part of their natural repertoire, it will take more work to get them to meet those expectations.
Example: I love to travel; I have found that initiating trips is not a part of my husband’s operant repertoire. While he will usually go along with my plans, I have learned that if I want to travel with him, I need to get things moving.
The more you start to pay attention to this, the more you will see. For example, if you’re always the one to reach out to a colleague or friend, and they always reply, you are probably seeing respondent behavior. See what happens if you back off and create a “free operant”environment where there are no cues or demands. What might you learn about their motivation and priorities?
In situations where you would like people to exhibit new or different behaviors, information about operants is useful as well. This gets us back to the notion of consequences—the things that happen after the behavior is exhibited. The use of consequences to shape behavior is called operant conditioning. Here are some applications:
It’s much easier to get people to demonstrate new behaviors if they are already doing some things that are similar. Shaping is the process of reinforcing a behavior that is “in the right direction” even if it’s not exactly what you ultimately want. As the frequency of the behavior increases, you can become more specific about the behaviors you reward, so that performance moves in the direction you desire. This is a technique used by athletic coaches, for instance, in helping people learn to master a sport. They look for moves in the right direction and praise them, and continue to adjust their feedback as skill improves, until the individual is consistently demonstrating the target level of performance.
When you want to increase the frequency of a behavior, choosing effective rewards is important. The rewards that people value can vary widely—money, status, access to interesting opportunities, greater autonomy—are all examples of rewards that are common in business settings. Praise, hugs, a smile, focused attention, and gifts are additional examples of rewards that we commonly use to reinforce desired behavior.
What’s really interesting, though, is that we can use the opportunity to engage in more-desired behaviors to reinforce the display of less-desired behaviors.This is the classic “you can have dessert after you’ve finished your dinner” contingency, but it shows up in many other places as well. We apply it to ourselves when we make a treat or reward contingent on finishing an effortful task. We apply it to others when we set systems up that require completion of less-desired actions before they can engage in more-desired ones.
Because each person’s preferences are unique, the things we can learn from their operants are very useful in helping us figure out which behaviors are pleasurable and can serve as rewards for things that they are not as excited about.
One very popular application of operant conditioning is in the area of gamification—defined by dictionary.com as “the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity.” This is an increasingly common approach in marketing, learning, etc. Effective gamification relies heavily on the principles of operant conditioning. Here’s an interesting article that dives into this more deeply.
Although the ideas I’ve laid out here are all things we intuitively know and apply, I have found that the value of “looking for the operant” is often underestimated. Here are a few questions to get you thinking about this topic:
How might you create more freedom for people to display behaviors that are not driven by expectations, cues, prompts, or situational constraints?
What can you do to be more attuned to the options people have in any given situation and notice the behaviors they choose and those they don’t choose?
Where do you notice yourself applying the principles of operant conditioning to shape your own behavior? Others’ behavior?
What other ideas do you have for applying the ideas related to operant behavior in your own work and life?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of Organizational Change Intersections. See you in two weeks!
There is some very interesting (but highly technical) work on the notion of “operant freedom” in laboratory research that suggests that a truly free situation allows people to: choose to initiate behavior, choose the form or type of behavior, have the freedom to repeat/correct behavior, and choose the pace/speed of behavior.
This is known as the Premack Principle.