Your Mental Toolkit

How breakthroughs in neuroscience will change the way you live and work

How Much Can Your Employees Get Away With?

You're setting the unwritten rules without even knowing it.

I was baffled. It was years ago, during my first semester as a physics and math teacher at a last chance Brooklyn public high school. I could be as clear as day about my intentions, what I wanted from the kids, my reasons, and the consequences for non-compliance, and yet the kids did whatever they wanted. But after a while, they started to fall in line.

What was happening? One of the benefits of teaching high school is that you get uncensored feedback — a kind of radical transparency — on every aspect of your performance. I quickly noticed that the kids had figured out my "contingency maps"; they had figured out the unwritten if...then logic of my behavior. Regardless of what I said, every student knew what they could get away with and what work they were going to have to do. And this was independent of motivation, or of the power of my rewards and punishments. Some of them loved the work, while some of them didn't want anything to do with school. But they all tended to not do what they could get away with not doing, in some way or another, that first semester. Now that I have studied neuroscience and psychology, I understand what was happening, and what to do about it.

Unbeknownst to the students, they were using the brains' powerful ability to recognize patterns and adapt to them. As a leader who is aware of this aspect of brain function, you can learn when you are communicating the wrong message and how to communicate the right one; and thus elicit the employee behaviors and organizational culture you want. We have two competing systems in the brain, each of which relies on different sets of brain regions. One system is a pattern recognizer, and guides the vast majority of our behavior. It's responsible for putting together the pieces of what we see, hear, smell, touch, and so on, to give us a sense of what's going on in the world. It does this passively and effortlessly.

Now add another fact about the pattern recognizer. It is no secret that the bulk of what our brains are interested in is other people. Thus, without trying, we know who arrives late to meetings but not dinners and vice versa. We know who says there will be a penalty, but doesn't follow through. We know what situations make our work friends angry at the boss. We know which paperwork will have little effect. And we know how long it really takes to get a response from the VP or from Sales on X. The default mode of brain function is to rely on this pattern recognizer and follow the contingencies it has picked up.

Let's leave my old high school classroom and look at a familiar contingency map that illustrates how pervasive these maps can be. All drivers have a sense of what the real speed limit is, and what the probability of getting a ticket is at different speeds (at the posted speed limit, at the unwritten speed limit, and higher than either). And we drive accordingly. Most people probably cannot put a number on these probabilities, but their behavior reflects that they know it in some way, and often are aware of the basic rules. The unwritten speed limit is roughly 5 to 10 mph higher than the posted in many areas, but sometimes 25 mph higher. And, notably, people often feel it is unfair if ticketed below that unwritten level. How could this feel unfair? Because the pattern recognizer was what prompted our expectations, and prepared the appropriate emotions for the situation. If our method for enforcing the speed limit was a social experiment in trying to get people to speed, it would be brilliant. 

It is when the pattern recognizer isn't able to handle the situation that a second system kicks in. The second system — the reasoning system — is responsible for deliberate, self-conscious decisions about how we will behave. As leaders, we try to speak to the reasoning system to ask for compliance. But most of the time, the pattern recognizer drives behavior. The reasoning system uses parts of the brain that developed more recently in evolution, are metabolically demanding, and are capable of fatiguing quickly. It hears the request "Hey everyone, I'd like to start these meetings right at 9:00" and makes an effort to comply. But without some trigger to grab the attention of this system each time, and override the pattern recognizer, the latter will soon figure out just when the meetings really start, and people will arrive accordingly. The same goes for larger organizational requests, like greater focus on safety or creativity.

With my students, what happened half way through the year was that they stopped getting mixed messages from me — I stopped asking their reasoning systems for hard work and focus, while showing their pattern recognizers that they could choose the direction the class would take if they just acted out. Regardless of what I told their reasoning systems, with consistent behavior on my part, I had to also show their pattern recognizers what the new rules of the classroom were. Once their pattern recognizers came to expect that the safe bet was that we'd be working in class, that my attention on them would come from asking a good, on topic question, and that acting out would get you left out — that made the difference.

As leaders, we need to ask ourselves, what are our own contingency maps? When we ask for change in our own organizations, what are the unwritten rules we are communicating about how things really operate, and about how they will operate after a change? To learn what rules you project, look at what's consistent in your employees' behavior, because they are behaving according to your contingency map. For example, suppose you have asked for more creativity and risk-taking on project proposals you receive, but the whole team seems to keep playing it safe. Ask yourself what you are doing to suggest that playing it safe is a good idea.

Do you respond to quickness more than creativity? Are your people in danger if their proposal is too innovative to use right away, but in no danger with a mediocre proposal that can be used off the shelf? You can become conscious of these contingencies and leverage them to your desired ends — for instance by finding ways to make creativity the safer choice than quickness. Be consistent. You can't hide from the unwritten rules. But you can leverage them, by removing contingencies that interfere with your goals, and setting up contingencies that support them.

This post was originally posted on Harvard Business Review (blogs.hbr.org).  

Photo credit

Josh Davis, Ph.D.

Josh Davis, Ph.D., is a Lead Professor for the NeuroLeadership Institute, a Term Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University, and a NeuroCoach.

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