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Ping Pong Pigeons? Focus on Development

Back in 1950, a psychologist named BF Skinner taught pigeons to play ping pong. Yep, that’s right. He literally taught pigeons to play ping pong. He actually taught them to read, too, but that is much less fun to watch. You might be thinking to yourself well, as strange as that seems, it makes sense coming from a psychologist. After all, those psychologists can be a strange bunch. One may attribute such unconventional experiments to the innovative approach of psychologists like Skinner, who are known to explore various techniques to develop their subjects.

Develop desired outcomes by reinforcing incremental behaviors

Actually, as strange as it is to think of training a pigeon to play ping pong, Skinner’s work was considered quite revolutionary at the time. Among other things, what his work highlighted was the impact that reinforcing incremental behaviors can have in eventually producing a much larger, more significant behavior in the end. In fact, as demonstrated through his work with the pigeons, Skinner believed that through deliberately reinforcing very specific behaviors, just about any behavioral outcome one might desire can be produced. In the case of the pigeons, the ultimate goal was to get them to be able to play ping pong. And they did!

In my role at TalentQuest I have the great honor and privilege of working with very accomplished and highly effective individuals. These clients are good at what they do and they know how to get results for their organizations. I have great respect for what these people do. However, one of the things I’ve noticed in my conversations with some of these clients is that in their strong focus on delivering results, they can sometimes undermine their stated goals of having a larger impact on the organizations and teams they serve. With their own efforts as well as that of their team, they tend to be highly goal focused and results-driven, only pausing long enough to judge success or failure based on whether the goal has been achieved or not.

The Results Paradox

I fully understand and appreciate that in business, results are what matter most. Results get the bills paid. I get that. However, if as leaders we want to do more than just get results, but also want to drive effective development across our teams along the way to delivering results we suddenly become presented with a paradox. That paradox being that when it comes to truly developing our team in service of greater, more sustainable results over the long term, we probably need to be a bit less, rather than more, results driven in our focus. As Skinner demonstrated with his pigeons, when we spend less time focusing on the desired end result and instead focus on spending more time identifying and reinforcing the many tiny behaviors required to get to that final outcome, we become significantly more effective at developing others. This, in turn drives more sustainable and effective results for the organization.

Once you’ve identified the end goal for your team, set it aside and focus your efforts on helping them to identify and develop those incremental behaviors and skills needed to deliver on those results.

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So, with Skinner as a model, I extend a challenge to those of you who are in people leadership roles. The challenge is to simply pause from time to time to truly reflect on the degree to which you are focusing on results only with your team versus the amount of time you are spending reinforcing those many tiny behaviors required to achieve those stated results. Take the lesson from Skinner, once you’ve identified the end goal for your team, set it aside and focus your efforts on helping them to identify and develop those incremental behaviors and skills needed to deliver on those results. Combining this with reinforcing those skills and behaviors every chance you can when you see them will almost guarantee that you not only achieve the desired results but that you impact each member of your team by helping him or her to become a stronger performer along the way. Over time, this builds a sustainable, highly effective culture, and you can then look in the mirror and truly embrace the positive impact you had on the organization as a result. And for leaders, that is often times our final, desired outcome.

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