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Self-Management: Understanding the Interrelationship between Behaviors

The more you understand the interrelationship between your behaviors and the behavior of subordinates, the more you can manage others by managing yourself. For example, if Jack is 20 minutes late, what should you do and say? If Jan produces a quality report, what should your response be? When you get down to basics, your primary and most powerful managing tool is your own behavior.

Managing Others by Managing Yourself

Many traditional management theories have failed to produce the desired results because they have tended to view employee behaviors as isolated events, and have thus overlooked their relationship to the environmental setting. These theories often point to internal needs, motives, and conflicts as the sole determinants of a person's actions.

Jack is late because he is immature and rebellious; this implies that Jack's lateness is his personal problem. And Jan's productivity is caused by her maturity and discipline. On the other hand, when you expand your vision to look at those behaviors in their environmental context, you may conclude that within that environment there are events that foster and maintain Jack's lateness and Jan's productivity.

You, of course, are part of your subordinates' environment—it may be that your actions or non-actions are the very events that evoke or maintain the behaviors you would like to eliminate. In other words, one way of changing the behavior of those around you is to change your own behavior.

The relationship between the consequences of employee behavior and the likelihood of that behavior's recurrence is becoming widely known. When you discover that your response to an employee is reinforcing an undesirable behavior, the solution seems quite simple: Stop reinforcing the undesirable behavior and start reinforcing a desirable one. The problem is that it is not always easy to simply stop and start reinforcing; it requires changing your responses, or more specifically, changing your behavior. The existing literature on the application of behavior modification in the organization often fails to emphasize that much of the manager's behavior is evoked or maintained by the behavior of employees.

Consider this example. Craig has an open door policy. He encourages his staff to drop in his office to talk about their work. The problem is that Bruce drops in once or twice a day to talk about matters unrelated to work. The manager before Craig had alienated the staff with his contradictory actions: One of the many complaints was that he encouraged them to go to him with problems, yet when they did he was either critical of them or "too busy" to listen. Craig was new in the position and knew that the staff was sizing him up. In his eagerness to be seen as different from his predecessor, he was reluctant to speak with Bruce about his socializing.

The functional analysis revealed that it was Craig's active listening (nodding and saying "uh, huh") that appeared to be reinforcing Bruce's socializing. The solution seemed obvious: Ignore Bruce's social talk and respond positively to any work-related talk—that is, change Craig's behavior so that he responded differently to Bruce. The problem was that Craig found this very difficult. "I don't understand it. In spite of my good intentions and efforts, I catch myself once again listening to Bruce's chatting." Sometimes Craig ignored the social talk; at other times he listened. His intermittent attempts to change his own behavior had a bad effect on Bruce because Craig intermittently reinforced Bruce and thus made the social talk more resistant to extinction. Craig solved this problem by making his response to Bruce the focus of a formal self-management program. The functional analysis of his own listening behavior was as follows: Upon studying the analysis, Craig expressed frustration. "It's an impossible situation. The social talk is irresistible, so I always listen. In fact, I feel very uncomfortable ignoring Bruce—it's rude. The only solution is to get Bruce to talk about work. And that's why I'm trying to stop listening to his chatting!" I suggested that he look more closely at all the antecedents of his listening. Craig did this and discovered his thoughts were another antecedent.

From this more complete analysis; Craig developed an effective self-management program in which he altered the anxiety-producing thoughts that prompted listening. When he noticed an anxiety-producing thought while Bruce was socializing, Craig used self-instructions to block out the unproductive thought and to direct his responses to Bruce. Once Craig modified his own behavior Bruce's talk quickly switched from social to work-related topics.

Let's look at another example. Ruth had a lot of trouble getting her secretary, whom she shared with two others, to do her work promptly. In fact, Ruth found it was often easier to type short things herself. Each time she asked that something be typed, Betty made excuses. Conducting a functional analysis, she discovered that almost every time Betty made excuses, Ruth either did the work herself or in some way altered her directive. This suggested that she was unknowingly reinforcing the very behavior that she wanted reduced. The solution to the problem seemed quite clear—rearrange the contingencies so that making excuses was ignored and deferential acceptance was reinforced. Ruth immediately set out to do this. She asked Betty to type a letter and predictably Betty made an excuse. Ruth ignored the excuse and did not alter her directive.

At that point, it appeared to be working, since she was getting fewer excuses, but another problem developed: Betty's work was often late, so that Ruth had to ask for it. She did not like her work late and did not like asking for it. She was getting frustrated and angry.

About two weeks after beginning the intervention phase, she asked that a report be pulled from the files by 11:00 a.m. for an important luncheon conference. At 11:15 the folder was still in the locked file and Betty was out of the office with the key. When Ruth finally found Betty, she exploded. Betty made an excuse, and Ruth threatened to fire her. Ruth looked and felt incompetent as a manager.

What happened? What went wrong? Ruth did not complete the functional analysis. She had identified the consequences of Betty's giving excuses but not the antecedent. The antecedent turned out to be "asking." Asking Betty to perform required tasks caused her to give excuses and then, by altering her request, Ruth reinforced this behavior.

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