The Best Way to Get the Worst Results
Last weekend, in an uncharacteristic burst of energy, I decided to tackle the piles of clutter that threatened to overtake our front entrance hall and my bedroom bookcase. Despite the fact that I knew this would thrill my (orderly and neat) husband, Michael, I decided not to announce that I was going to do it. I just did it. I managed to get the many non-book stacks of stuff off of my bookshelf and into my office/bathroom/garbage without anyone noticing what I was up to. I then went to tackle the front hall, where I had dumped everything from makeup and office supplies to spare keys and headphones (so that’s where they were!) and had promptly forgotten where they were.
This was where I got careless. I stopped being so quiet. And I got caught.
“Wow,” said Michael to me, eying surfaces he hadn’t seen in weeks. “You look like you’re on a roll!”
“Yup,” I said, “I’m getting my act together.”
And that’s when Michael committed the fundamental sin that partners, parents, bosses and co-workers make every single day:
Since you’re in an organizing mood, I have a great project in the basement for you when you’re done with this.
As Julia Roberts said in Pretty Woman, “Big mistake. Big. HUGE!”
What was Michael’s egregious error?
He was negatively reinforcing a behavior he wanted to see continue. He saw that I was doing something productive and helpful of my own limited volition, and promptly offered me the opportunity to do more of something I don’t like to do. The answer was a swift “no thank you,” and I finished up the job I was doing as quickly as possible with my interest in it and commitment to it now cut in half. (And then I ran and hid in my office to write this.)
We do this all the time, without knowing it: negatively reinforcing positive behavior, and positively reinforcing negative behavior. We give the kvetching child more attention, another TV show and maybe sneak in an extra cookie, while her sibling looks on wondering why she herself hadn’t thought to throw a fit. We give our direct report who gets everything done on time and with a great attitude more and more work as our “go to” person, until he crumbles under the weight of unreasonable expectations. We give the difficult lay leader significant ego-stroking and the easy-going volunteers barely any attention, and then wonder why the difficult lay leader becomes even more demanding, while the other volunteers go serve somewhere else where they can get the appreciation they deserve.
We’re smarter than this. So why do we do it? Sometimes it’s because we’re avoiding a conflict. Sometimes it’s because we don’t know how to give feedback effectively. Sometimes it’s because we assume that our child/partner/in-law/assistant/boss/lay leader will never change. And more often than not, it’s because we’re completely unaware of the fact that this system is happening – and that we have a role in it.
Do a behavior audit and ask: “What’s going on here?” A behavior is something that is observable, measurable and repeatable. Even though people might differ in their interpretation of the behavior (“You yelled at me!” vs. “I spoke with conviction.”), people can agree that something happened. Over the next week, observe the behaviors of one person in your personal life and one person in your professional life. Notice one thing each person is doing that you appreciate and would like to continue, and one thing that they’re doing that you don’t like and wish would stop. Keep a log of how often these behaviors are occurring, and then ask, “What’s going on here?” First ask that to yourself. Notice what’s going on in the environment around them (including your own and others’ behaviors) that permits or supports this behavior. What in this system do you have control over that you can alter – even if slightly? If nobody says anything when the boss cancels your team meetings repeatedly, can you be the one to speak up? Then ask, “What’s going on here?” to the other person. Maybe your receptionist is snapping at members on the phone. What would happen if you asked if she was OK — because you noticed a certain tone and you were concerned? Sometimes all we need to do is name and notice, “What’s going on here?” to help ourselves and others take stock of their behaviors.
If Michael had asked me, “What’s going on here?” when he saw me in my organizing frenzy, I would have told him that I felt temporarily inspired to create some order out of chaos. Had he asked himself, “What’s going on here?” he might have realized that I was getting something done because nobody was asking me to do it. And that would have changed his “hey, wanna do more of this?” approach to me.
I can only hope that publicly exposing Michael to our readers serves as a negative reinforcement of a behavior I don’t want to see repeated. And if it turns out that he loves the fame? I’m back to the behavioral reinforcement drawing board.