Skinnerian behaviorism is, in its pure form, preposterous. It proposes that the only force guiding our development, abilities, and personality … though personality is actually an unscientific mirage is the rewards and punishments we experience as infants and beyond.

In a word, conditioning.

Behaviorism ignores such obvious factors as, oh, I don’t know … that tall children who become tall teenagers are more likely to become professional basketball players than those who are genetically predisposed to a more diminutive stature.

Not that behaviorism is entirely worthless. For example:

Put a pigeon in a cage equipped with a bar. When the pigeon pecks the bar, for whatever reason, it receives a food pellet as a reward. Pigeons quickly learn to peck the bar when they’re hungry.

But if your goal is to maximize the rate of pigeon bar-pecking, set up the bar so it only delivers a food pellet after a random number of pecks. Pigeons subjected to this “variable-ratio reinforcement schedule” never lose interest. They peck the bar rapidly, repetitively, and enthusiastically until their beaks turn into lips.

Most golfers are similar – we smite the white spheroid well just often enough to bring us back to the course for another round. As applied to us humans, variable ratio reinforcement explains a lot more than golf. From video games to darts to jigsaw puzzles to birding, to writing text-handling Excel formulas, it’s the random scarcity of positive reinforcement that brings practitioners back for more.

Variable-ratio reinforcement also provides a useful lens for evaluating popular reinforcement-based methods for motivating the men and women who report to you.

Depending on which management theorist you read, you’ll come across (at least) these three popular alternatives:

Positive reinforcement: Find something to praise, because employees will do more of what gets them positive attention.

KJR analysis: This would be more convincing if humans were less like pigeons. Also, many managers who rely too heavily on positive reinforcement find themselves searching for something … anything … to praise to get the positive feedback loop started.

But when receiving praise is too easy, the praise loses its impact. Especially, too-easy praise for mediocre employees turns the best employees into eye-rollers.

Financial incentives: People do what they’re paid to do, or so goes this theory. So if an employee, after going the extra mile, receives cash money to recognize their efforts, they’ll go the extra mile whenever they’re given the opportunity.

KJR analysis: If you give an employee a bonus for today’s performance as an incentive for tomorrow’s performance, you’ll have to give employees a bonus every time they think they’ve gone another kilometer or two. If you don’t they’ll feel cheated out of money they think they’ve earned.

Also, any other employees who think they’ve also traversed eight furlongs or more will have every reason to expect a bonus of their very own, whether or not their self-assessment matches your assessment.

Hold ‘em accountable: Set your expectations. Make sure each employee understands them. If they meet them, that’s just fine. If they exceed them, the expectations you set were too low. If they don’t you make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that they’d better up their game.

KJR analysis: Set clear expectations? Check. Make sure employees understand them? Check. Except for the “set” part.

Have a conversation about expectations. Listen to your employees and their perspectives about what’s reasonable as much as you explain yours.

Yes, they might go easier on themselves that you do. But by the same token, if you’ve staffed your organization with people whose perspectives aren’t worth listening to, you’ve staffed it wrong.

Also, if you never recognize strong performance when it’s given, that’s okay. You can decide to only hire people whose motivation comes from the satisfaction of a job well done.

But this does mean you’re taking no responsibility for motivating them? If even the best performance earns no praise, your criticisms (or “constructive feedback,” or whatever) are pretty much meaningless too.

Bob’s last word: What works best also explains why outstanding employees are willing to stay with hard-to-please managers: compliment top-notch performance and only top-notch performance.

It’s variable-ratio reinforcement at its best. If you’re a behaviorist, see “pigeons,” above. If you think in less arid terms, praise that’s possible but not easy is praise that has meaning and impact.

Bob’s sales pitch: This is just a sketch. For a more in-depth view of the KJR approach to motivating employees, pick up a copy of Leading IT: (Still) the Toughest Job in the World. You’re looking for Chapter 6.

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I’m experiencing technical difficulties with this site. Specifically, the plug-in that drives my archives isn’t compatible with the current version of WordPress (yet), and the incompatibility mostly shows up when you try to post a Comment.

I’ll be taking the Archives down until I have them working without their interfering with anything else. As Search seems to be working right you still have an avenue into everything in the Archives.

Sorry for the inconvenience.

– Bob

When COVID-19 hit, it was all companies could do to provide the tools employees needed to work from home.

But tools are only one dimension of what it takes for an organization to get its work done effectively. Fewer businesses took the steps needed to adapt employees to their new remote collaboration toolkit; fewer still re-thought their processes and practices to adapt them to a remote workforce and vice versa.

As for the fraction that re-thought the fundamentals of management and leadership, call it a fraction of a fraction of a fraction. Take, for example, this week’s title: With more than a year of adaptation to a COVID-19-adapted workforce, you’d think the internet would be filled with practical digital alternatives to MBWA (management by walking around).

But never mind all that. While the road to COVID-19 resilience still has no shortage of potholes, what you as a business leader and manager should be planning for is the future, not the present. The question you should be asking is what your formula for workforce effectiveness should look like in the coming post-COVID-19 world.

A year ago the men and women responsible for making your organization work were dealing with the loss of social interactions as an enjoyable aspect of everyday functioning, the reduced intra-team trust that came from a more purely transactional view of leadership and peer relationships, and the realization that the whole idea of keeping work life and home life separate had become a quaint relic of a bygone age.

But after more than a year of COVID-19, employees have, for better or worse, acclimated. That’s good, on the grounds that if they hadn’t your company would be out of business.

What isn’t bad, but might not be obvious: Now that employees have acclimated … especially the employees who have become accustomed to working remotely … they won’t all gladly give up remote working’s perks.

Many companies, and especially those companies whose approach to organizational change management (OCM) is, “We tell employees what to do and they do it,” are going to be caught off-guard by employees who like being in charge of their schedule – who figure that as long as they get their work done what’s the problem?

So as you prepare to unwind your COVID-19-induced workforce adaptations, take some time to think through what your new workplace normal should look like. Odds are it won’t, or at least shouldn’t look like the pre-COVID normal any more than it should look like the COVID normal.

Where to start?

Here’s one way to go about it: Put each role in your organization, into one of three categories: On-site, remote, or hybrid. Make these assignments based on the nature of the work and only the work.

Next, think through the nature of the relationships that matter for employees in each category to work effectively with employees in the other two categories and adjust the category assignments based on these relationships.

Finally, adjust the categorizations based on what it will take for you to effectively manage and lead the employees in each category.

Then, as you plan migration into your new workforce model, keep in mind that not all aspects of this transition will be welcome. You’ll be asking some employees to give up characteristics of their work environment they’ve grown to value.

Bob’s last word: This isn’t only about the people you lead and manage. Before you plan anything else, plan how you’re going to lead and manage in the new environment. If you haven’t figured that out, you haven’t figured anything out.

Bob’s sales pitch: If you need some outside help figuring out the details, you know who to call.

Don’t you?