Unreliable Behavior

I just read Charles Jacobs’ ‘Management Rewired’ which looks at the latest findings in neuroscience and applies them to leadership in the business world.  

In a nutshell, the author claims a lot of managers ignore that ‘perception is everything’ and that management staples like incentive programs and performance appraisals are often more harmful than helpful, because they are all about one perspective (the manager’s).  He reminds the reader that there is no absolute truth, but rather an infinite number of perceptions about events. To motivate and lead, a manager must understand the perspectives of those whose behavior they wish to change, and bring benefits into focus, so that the motivation to change is internal rather than external.  That is a broad brush generalization for sure, but this isn’t a book review. 

Jacobs borrows heavily on personal experiences as a management consultant and research in the field of psychology, and this leads me to my point. Psychological experiments such as The Prisoner’s Dilemma, Stanford_Prison_Experiment, and the Milgram Experiment have spawned thousands of theses about the secrets of human nature, and how what we learned can help change behavior*.  Authors and publishing houses alike are only too eager to spin these fascinating and fantastic studies into business book gold. 

I also just read ‘Super Freakonimics’ the so-so sequel to the original that spawned hundreds of books that basically rip apart popular perception, and lay bare what can be argued as ‘truth’.  In one of the book’s few highlights, Levitt and Dubner present some very interesting perceptions about how just about every psychological study that ever involved a volunteer is severely crippled by ‘participant bias’. That is, participants are likely to behave in ways that they think the researcher will want them to, affecting their behavior. This is especially true when the administrators and subjects are college students who want to look good in the eyes of those administering the tests.  Even when the ‘subjects’ are real, there is nothing real about being in a setting where you know you are being watched.  The text in ‘Super Freakonomics’ about Game Theory and human altruism was very interesting because subjects behaved very differently when they were unaware they were being observed. 

So, before you dog-ear the latest book on management philosophy, and bench-test the wonderful practices on your staff, children or loved-ones, remember that the test subjects in the heavily relied-upon experiments also held unique perceptions and behaved accordingly. So are performance evaluations and incentive programs useless?  They are if goals serve only one perspective. 

*If you are a student of the human condition and do want to learn more about the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Game Theory, Stanford, and Milgram, wikipedia does a great job explaining them succinctly.

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