Larry Childs

Ever wonder why people don’t do the things you want them to do? Why is it that some individuals perversely do the exact opposite of what you would have them do? And who can figure out why people act the way they do in the first place?

The answers to these questions have only taken me years of study and mountains of work experience to figure out. And yet, when I reveal them to you, you will first think that the answers are so obvious that it shouldn’t take that amount of time to draw such conclusions. Second, you will recognize that you have known the answers all along. But let’s proceed anyway.

Let’s take the answer to the third question first. Psychologists are the people most likely to study why individuals do the things they do. The field has advanced significantly from Sigmund Freud’s late 19th century start in the study of the unconscious and the use of the couch so widespread in cartoons poking fun at the profession.

What interests psychologists now are the observable actions of a person’s interaction with his or her surroundings. What behaviors do we observe? What seems to be the relationship between that behavior and an individual’s environment? What rewards does a person’s behavior generate or what punishments does he or she avoid as a result of that behavior?


To focus on the first two questions, let’s take the case of a technician who works for you and does not always get it quite right. Perhaps he or she does not receive good customer ratings on your service feedback form, even while performing excellent technical work.

Or perhaps this technician’s truck is poorly stocked, resulting in delayed job completion due to stock outs, despite your expectation that technicians’ trucks must always be fully supplied at the beginning of each shift.

For both of these situations, as for many other performance problems, we can ask what are the rewards for these behaviors? As a starting point, we adopt the approach that people behave rationally - generally, they want to get positive rewards (e.g., money, recognition, approval) and avoid negative ones (e.g., loss of money, unfair work loads, disapproval). There are even some rewards that are motivating by their absence - the old saying that you beat your head against a wall because it feels so good when you stop is fitting here.

To summarize, people will tend to behave in ways that will get them things that they desire, allow them to avoid things that they don’t want, or keep them away from things they don’t like (e.g., boring or excessively punishing work).

Why doesn’t a technically capable service technician get good customer satisfaction ratings? Perhaps, the technician is not receiving any positive rewards for highly satisfied customers. Technicians who are rewarded only for getting the job done right the first time and for spending the least amount of time possible on the jobsite will adjust their behaviors to deliver on those expectations.

To get those technicians to pay appropriate attention to their customers’ perceptions of good service, management should pay them attention in the form of positive performance reviews, bonuses, awards, and other benefits. Technicians should know what rewards come their way when both technical excellence and customer service are delivered consistently.

There is very little probability that you would reward a technician through positive attention or money to keep his/her truck poorly stocked. Yet in a case where a technician consistently lacks attention to such detail, it is helpful to examine why that technician regularly behaves in that way.

If he or she is not being rewarded for keeping the truck poorly stocked, what other behaviors that are incompatible with a well-stocked truck are being rewarded?

Perhaps the technician can leave work earlier and without penalty if he or she devoted some end of shift time to restocking. Perhaps there is no performance penalty for taking longer than standard for a job if the delay is due to a part shortage (as opposed to poor technical skills). Perhaps there are other behaviors that your performance system rewards more highly than a well-stocked vehicle and therefore the technician is rationally pursuing those goals more than the lower ranked truck-stocking objective.

To summarize, we can learn from psychologists that an analysis of behavior is key to understanding why people perform either according to our expectations or not. We want to look not only at what rewards are offered for “doing the right thing,” but also what rewards are offered for behaviors that interfere with doing the right thing.

While it can be tricky to find the connections between the what of behavior and its why, it is not as difficult as hauling Sigmund Freud’s couch to the worksite to analyze your workers’ motivations.

Behaviors can be understood in terms of what is rewarded and what is not. Adjusting behavior, then, is a matter of adjusting rewards and ensuring that the behaviors you want get the rewards that encourage your people to deliver what you want.

Publication Date:06/23/2008