Of Skinner, Pavlov, and My Mistakes


Of Skinner, Pavlov, and My Mistakes


In last week’s “Reading for Leading,” I introduced a series on managing, and in particular balancing the need for constructive criticism with the need to support and energize employees. As an initial point I suggested this critical distinction: What we say is quite frequently not what they hear. Comments from last week really extended that idea well.  And, let me take the point a little further this week to help us realize the precarious, universal human context into which we speak.

THE most important thing a leader-parent can do in this domain of mistakes and constructive advice is to understand human nature.  Next week I’ll talk about the next big step: Develop and articulate a constructive Philosophy on Mistakes.

Ahhh, human nature.  When it comes to making mistakes people, i.e., mortals are extremely and understandably sensitive. Mistakes matter. In some cases – aeronautics, engineering, surgery, police on the scene, toddlers near a pool, or simple everyday driving – mistakes can be fatal.  So, at the cellular level we are programmed to avoid mistakes.  And then: We were all kids by a fire, a sharp knife, a stairway, or a busy street. Every one of us got chewed out, spanked, scolded, or grounded so that we would get it right. Teachers, coaches, police, and the clergy followed in behind our parents to reinforce the lessons and heighten the stakes.

We thus learned to play by the rules, to fear stepping across the line. And as a result, whether we were common criminals or national leaders, each of us learned to do some of our absolute worst behavior when we thought we were caught in a mistake. We hid, lied, cheated, sold out our friends, and even hurt people (as a kid, I did every one of those). How often have we heard it said – of CEOs and Presidents, as well as junior high school students – “he would have been so much better off if he’d just admitted his mistake?”  And that, my fellow leaders, should tell you just how highly charged it is when you’re looking into, let alone singling out someone’s mistakes.

We all look like adults, mature, sophisticated, and rational. But within each of us there are stories of crime and punishment, living cells of mistake and shame, and every manager best beware.  Like Pavlov’s dogs and Skinner’s rats, we don’t need to be shocked any longer. We’ve internalized the fear.  So, you can say, as a manager-friend said to me a while ago, “My people know that my bark is worse than my bite.” But it doesn’t take much more than a look – let alone a bark – to elicit all kinds of highly charged emotional and mental tumult. (And remember, we hide it well!)

You’ve got to account for that, if you’re going to,

Lead with your best self.

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