Skinner’s Business Box

Written by Joe Driscoll

November 17, 2009

B. F. Skinner, one of the most influential and controversial psychologists of the 20th century, passed away several weeks ago.

Known as the dean of modern behaviorists, Skinner’s theories were based on the premise that behavior is determined by the individual’s environment. In his theories of operant conditioning, Skinner stated that behavior could be controlled by the surroundings. In other words, in a carefully controlled system, the skillful use of rewards could be used to manipulate the environment to produce desirable behavior.

Skinner’s advocacy of behavioral engineering and his rejection of free will created considerable controversy. One of his early experiments resulted in the famous “Skinner’s Box”. The “Box” was a carefully controlled environment for the observation of behavior that resulted from changes in the surroundings.

What does all this mean for your business? Quite a bit I think. Your business is the “Box”. The behavior that takes place in that “Box” will be quite predictable depending on how the “Box” is organized.

Entrepreneurial companies don’t behave differently than large bureaucracies by accident. Industry leaders aren’t differentiated from also-rans by good fortune. Cooperation and chaos aren’t separated by chance. Each of these “business boxes” are clearly differentiated by how they are organized.

There are certain characteristics of a healthy organization that increase the incidence of positive, rational behavior in the workplace. Describe the planning, communication, and compensation programs in the “Box”, and I’ll predict the behavior!

A rational organization begins with the establishment of worthwhile objectives that are obtainable and clearly understood by those that will have an impact on accomplishing them. It has a goal supporting planning process, clear assignment of job responsibilities, mutually agreed upon performance standards, an open communication and feed back system, and reasonable controls.

Too often businesses are activity oriented, not goal oriented. In an activity oriented company, there is no general understanding concerning the overall priorities of the business. Even with individual projects that are currently in progress, there is often no consensus as to the objective of the activity being undertaken.

A healthy system must adequately and objectively measure the output and progress of each employee against individual objectives. Obviously without the establishment of objectives, it is impossible to measure the progress against those objectives.

In the absence of clearly defined responsibilities, it is impossible for an employee to know when their work is done. Without a consensus on the priorities and the means for pursuing them, conflict and chaos are the inevitable results. This condition will keep the best of staffs in an overworked “fire fighting” mode and will be a substantial inhibitor to growth and improved performance.

The “Box” should provide an equitable compensation program to encourage desirable behavior. In all but the smallest of companies there should be an established policy or program to deal with compensation.

Compensation issues make employers and employees more uncomfortable than any other issues. As a result, the subject of compensation is often swept aside, dealt with only when a problem can’t be avoided any other way. The best reinforcement of corporate goals is a compensation system that rewards results and behavior that advances the company’s goals.

Beyond the “Box”, Skinner’s work provided many useful insights for today’s manager. Skinner was an advocate of positive reinforcement. He observed that punishment didn’t cause positive results, but only caused behavior that avoided the punishment. He advocated positive reinforcement and rewards to encourage desirable behavior.

The professional and scientific debate concerning Skinner’s controversial work will continue for ages. Without going to the extremes of the debate, the basic premises of Skinner’s work have significant practical applications in the world of management. How your ‘”Box” is organized will dramatically effect the behavior of your employees.

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