BEHAVIORISM Fred Luthans, James B. Avey and Brett Luthans Definition Behaviorism is a theoretical foundation with roots in psychology with an intentional focus on observable, measurable behavior as the primary unit of analysis (Luthans, Youssef, & Luthans, 2005). Behaviorism systematically analyzes the relationships between an individual’s behavior and environmental contingencies. The study and practice of behaviorism emphasizes predicting and controlling/managing behavior and thus is especially relevant to organization studies.The behaviorism paradigm is in contrast to the popular cognitive psychology theories in that behaviorism is not focused on internal cognitive or affective processes or indirect measures of beliefs, attitudes or feelings. Whereas cognitive based approaches attempt to understand and explain the multifaceted causes and complexity of human behavior, behaviorism is based on the premise that behavior is a function of its environmental consequences or contingencies (also see Motivation, Contingency Theory).There are four primary historical building blocks of behaviorism.
These major foundational contributions are Pavlov’s (1849-1936) classical conditioning experiments, Thorndike’s (1874-1949) law of effect, Watson’s (1878-1958) experiments with human conditioning, and Skinner’s (1904-1990) work and conceptualization of operant conditioning (also see Operant Conditioning). However, applied to organization studies, the most influential application of behaviorism would be Luthans and Kreitner’s (1985) book Organizational Behavior Modification and Beyond.Conceptual Overview Have you ever wondered how children, adults, and even animals learn to respond to and operate in their world? Early in the twentieth century, Thorndike coined the famous law of effect by systematically studying cats in a puzzle box. Thorndike’s law of effect states behaviors followed by positive consequences tend to be strengthened and increase in subsequent frequency, while those followed by negative consequences tend to weaken and decrease in frequency.
Even before Thorndike established the law of effect, a Russian scientist named Ivan Pavlov conditioned several dogs to salivate to the sound of a ringing bell. Originally the bell was sounded with the presentation of food (meat powder, positive consequence) and ultimately the dog’s salivation was in accordance with the bell regardless of food presentation (Pavlov highlighted the stimulus-response phenomenon).In a logical progression, Watson applied the behavioral conditioning mechanism to humans when he conditioned the subject “little Albert” to fear white rats by associating them with a loud, unpleasant noise (negative consequence). In the 1930’s the famous psychologist B. F. Skinner made a significant discovery for modern behaviorism that led to the modern practice of organizational behavior modification.
Using rats and pigeons in controlled environments, his studies found that the consequences of behavior were influential in determining, predicting and controlling that behavior.Skinner highlighted the important distinction between respondent conditioning (Pavlovian S-R connection) where the stimuli elicit the behavior and operant conditioning (the organism operates on the environment in order to obtain the desired consequence, or the R-S connection) where the behavior is a function of the consequence. Skinner’s operant conditioning with the focus on environmental consequences as behavioral determinants instead of antecedent stimuli led to the underlying core premise of modern behaviorism.Based on this scientific foundation, the study of behaviorism suggests that we can predict and modify behavior by strategically controlling (i. e. , managing) the consequences. This well-known practice of managing behavioral contingencies has become known as “behavior modification.
” Modern behaviorism and behavior modification has been applied to organization studies and performance management in the workplace by Luthans and Kreitner (1985) as “organizational behavior modification,” or simply O. B.Mod (Luthans and Kreitner, 1985 for a full review) (also see Classical Management, Organizational Behavior).
The O. B. Mod. approach to performance management involves five sequential steps: (1) identify critical performance-related behaviors; (2) measure the frequency of those identified behaviors; (3) analyze the antecedents and consequences associated with the behavior within the existing environment; (4) intervene by applying positive consequences/reinforcers contingent upon exhibiting the desired behavior; and (5) evaluate the results by measuring changes in the behavior and its impact on performance.In over 30 years of multiple research studies and applications of this O. B. Mod. approach, Luthans and colleagues ( Stajkovic & Luthans, 1997, 2003), and other behavioral management scholars have been able to reach consistent, conclusive findings.
First, three types of positive consequences/reinforcers result in an increase of desired work related behaviors and performance outcomes when administered contingently. These are: money, performance feedback, and social recognition (Luthans & Stajkovic, 1999).A major finding for managing organizations is that in many cases feedback and/ or recognition, which typically involve no direct cost, often results in similar (and sometimes higher) performance outcomes than monetary reinforcers that are often outside a manager’s direct control. Luthans and colleagues offer guidelines for use of these reinforcers. For example, effective performance feedback must be positive (emphasizing what is right), immediately following the desired behavior, graphic, and specific.Effective social recognition must include personal one-on-one attention and appreciation from the manager communicating to the employee that the desired behavior has been noticed and admired by the manager versus a standard program where randomly selected employees are recognized regardless of demonstration of desired behaviors (which is what many of the formal recognition programs become over time). Positively reinforcing desired behaviors is significantly more effective in terms of performance impact over time than punishing undesired behaviors.It is important to note that punishment may be necessary when there is a need to immediately cease potentially harmful behavior.
For example, in the case of a workplace safety violation (e. g. not wearing a helmet or eye protectors on a construction site), the behavioral management approach would not take time to measure the outcomes and wait for the desired safe behavior to occur in order to administer positive reinforcement. However, in general, the potential long term harm of punishment (e. g. stress, burnout, revenge, turnover, decrease in commitment) may be more than its potential benefits.It is important to point out that behavioral management works across various organizational types, industries, and cultures (Luthans & Stajkovic, 1999). For example, the behavioral management technique has been successfully employed in a Russian factory, where it demonstrated stronger performance outcomes than the participative management technique (Welsh, Luthans, & Sommer, 1993) and most recently with Korean information service providers.
Critical Commentary and Future Directions The contributions of behaviorism in general, and more specifically the O.B. Mod. approach to behavioral management, have been very positive in organizational studies.
Behaviorism provides understanding of how we learn, operate, and perform in all types of organizations. Organizations achieve their missions, visions, goals, and competitive advantage through the performance and behavior of people. A meta-analysis shows that the application of the O.
B. Mod. model in the workplace across multiple industries, levels, and cultures increased performance on average 17 percent (Stajkovic & Luthans, 1997).Despite the overwhelming support of how well behaviorism works in the organization, several limitations to the technique must be highlighted. First, individuals are unique and thus not all people respond the same way to reinforcers. Their desires are not only different, but they may also change over time.
However, this is not a major problem when applying O. B. Mod. in the workplace because people in general desire money, feedback and recognition. However, they may vary in the level of intensity in their responses and which reinforcer has a relatively greater impact.Although behaviorism helps us to predict, modify, and change behavior over time, it does not attempt nor intend to understand how or why the phenomenon works. Behaviorism tends not to recognize the complexity of human cognitive processes. Another potential limitation is that in most cases multiple contingencies are salient in the context within which behavioral management attempts take place, resulting in complex interactions.
These multiple contingencies can become competing contingencies as to which one the behavior links to and its subsequent effects.Behaviorism is not concerned with nor does it account for the social context within which contingent reinforcement (or punishment) takes place. In fact, modern behaviorism including O. B. Mod. treats antecedent factors as cues for the desired behavior. Still another limitation to the behaviorism approach is the requirement for action on behalf of the manager.
In behaviorism, if the contingent reinforcement is removed and no longer exists, the desired behavior that was previously reinforced is likely to decrease in frequency and intensity, eventually fading away. This elimination of the controlling consequence is referred to as “extinction. This implies that managers who practice a behavioral management approach to increase the performance of their staff need to at minimum maintain an intermittent reinforcement schedule in order to avoid this going to extinction. In an attempt to combine the best of both worlds, and to present a more comprehensive and realistic view of human behavior in organizations, many previously radical behaviorists have “mellowed out” (Luthans & Kreitner, 1985) to adopt a social cognitive approach to understanding behavior (Bandura, 1986) (also see Social Cognition, Self-Efficacy, Cognitive Approach).The social cognitive approach asserts that behavior is the result of a continuous reciprocal three-way interaction between the person (cognition), the environment (physical context, including organizational structure and design; social context, i. e. , other people), and the individual’s past behavior. As opposed to behaviorism where behavior is a function of its contingent consequences, the social cognitive lens argues that behavior is also influenced by the processes of symbolizing, forethought, observation, self-regulation, and self-reflection (Bandura, 1986).
Furthermore, from a social cognitive perspective, the role of contingent reinforcement in enhancing performance can be understood in terms of outcome utility, informative content, and regulatory mechanisms (Stajkovic & Luthans, 2001). The future of behaviorism at least as it is applied to organization studies is likely to continue within the comprehensive theoretical framework of social cognition. Both organization scholars and practitioners realize the value of the objectivity and predictive validity behaviorism in general and O. B. Mod.
in particular has on measurable performance impact.However, in today’s complex, ever-changing work environment, radical behaviorism is not comprehensive enough to stand alone. With the increasing emphasis on human resources as the primary source of long term competitive advantage, the confluence of behaviorism theory and cognitive theory through social cognitive theory may best accomplish the goals of understanding, prediction, and effective performance management. References Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
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