Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D
Brett DiNovi & Associates
Being a leader is arguably one of the most complex behavioral repertoires that a human can master, and one of the least understood. A quick search of “leadership” on Amazon returns over 100,000 results. Refine the search to “leadership laws” and you will still be left with over 7,000 results to sift through. Narrow it further to, “How to be a leader,” and, at the time of this writing, you’ll have 798 books to choose from. The latter exercise alone makes it clear that there is little consensus on specifically what makes a person a leader.
From a behavioral perspective, one might say a leader is a person who specifies a goal and then occasions the behavior of others towards realizing that goal. A leader delivers antecedents and consequences that direct the performance of a team and, as her or his scope grows, provides antecedents and consequences for other leaders and managers to work effectively with their own teams.
That’s a reductive explanation, however. One could read that last paragraph and think leadership is just a matter of providing discriminative stimuli and then reinforcing certain behaviors in their presence and extinguishing behaviors in their absence. Its an example that might prove true in changing the behavior of rats and pigeons, but people aren’t rats and pigeons. People have language, and language throws a wrench in it all. In leadership, the ultimate reinforcers for behavior are often long-delayed and, because of that, a leader has to master the use of language.
Decades of research in human language and rule-governed behavior has taught us a lot, but one thing that’s most relevant when it comes to leadership is that our words shape our actions. Once we’ve developed a rule for how to do something or how something “should” be, our behavior follows along and tracks with the rule. We become blind to other ways of doing things and can’t see other possible routes to getting things done. When people see things differently, a leader can’t simply reinforce doing things her or his way because people won’t do those things in the first place. In cases like these, leaders can’t just manage behavior; they must manage verbal behavior.
A recent video by DiNovi & Associates demonstrates some excellent examples of behaviors leaders can apply immediately to build alignment and get teams headed in the same direction. It shows leaders operating in tense situations, where key teammates have different opinions about what the team should and should not do.
It starts with a discussion of a customer service breakdown. The company has broken some promises to its customers and isn’t meeting its own standards on delivering what it says. The first thing the video shows is the leader identifying the problem and getting clear that the team agrees that – yes – there is a problem. This is important. In starting a problem-solving discussion, it is important that everyone align around a goal – in this case reducing cancellations and, therefore, upset clients. Without the alignment, leaders might find that, two weeks later, their team hasn’t taken actions to reduce the problem. And why would they? If a problem doesn’t look like a problem to them, they either won’t take action or are more likely to take actions that make no difference. They’re more likely to “half-ass” it. Given what we know about verbal behavior, getting them to say it’s a problem makes it much more likely they’ll see it that way.
It doesn’t stop there. Remember, in leadership, the ultimate reinforcer for behavior now – the ultimate goal – might not happen for months and in some cases years. You’ll see in the video that building and maintaining alignment is a constant process. Not only that, but it can be frustrating and doesn’t always work. The behaviors of leadership require persistence and a resistance to extinction. And then, when one does succeed in building alignment in this moment, it’s there to reinforce and strengthen again in the next.
In the last minute of the video, our CEO demonstrates one of the most critical behaviors of a strong leader. This conversation wasn’t easy. Things got tense, and it’s likely that not everyone in the room thinks the team is taking the best course of action. Conversations like this are critical, but these are the kinds of meetings that people can walk away from resentful and, over time, resentments poison a company culture.
Though you can’t control whether people will build resentments, what Brett does at the end is a great move for making them less likely. You’ll see he reinforces and appreciates participation in the process. He acknowledges a) this wasn’t an easy conversation, b) reinforces participation, and c) presences the delayed reinforcer by reminding the team why conversations like this are important. That makes a huge difference. It makes it more likely the team will act on the problem and do so in a way that meaningfully moves the ball forward. Beyond that, it can be the difference between a manager going home and telling their spouse about their horrible day versus sharing about a challenging, but ultimately rewarding work experience. Building a team that has that experience – through good leadership behavior – is ultimately what’s going deliver business results and take failure off the table.
To hear more, be sure to check out the full video, and to subscribe to Brett DiNovi’s YouTube channel and let him know what you would like to see in future videos. Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!
Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which owns the top behavior analytic media outlet in the world, bSci21.org. bSci21Media aims to disseminate behavior analysis to the world and to support ABA companies around the globe through the Behavioral Science in the 21st Century blog and its subsidiaries, bSciEntrepreneurial, bSciWebDesign, bSciWriting, and the ABA Outside the Box CEU series. Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar. He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues. Dr. Ward has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas. Dr. Ward is passionate about disseminating behavior analysis to the world and growing the field through entrepreneurship. Todd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Brett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA has the unique and distinguished experience of studying the principles of applied behavior analysis under the rigorous scrutiny of both Dr. Julie S. Vargas (formerly Skinner) and Dr. E.A. Vargas at West Virginia University’s internationally recognized program. For the past 26 years, Brett has used behavior analytic principles to create large scale change across school districts, Fortune 500 companies using principles of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), and across individual learners. Brett has been a OBM consultant in Morgantown WV, an instructor at West Virginia University, a guest lecturer at numerous universities, a speaker on multiple Comcast Newsmakers TV programs, an expert witness in due process hearings, has publications in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, and has been in in executive leadership positions across schools and residential programs nationwide. In addition to an award from South Jersey Biz Magazine for “Best Places to Work,” an award for “Best of Families” in Suburban Magazine, and the distinguished “Top Ranked U.S. Executives” award, Brett’s proudest accomplishment is being a role model and father for his daughter and two stepchildren (one of which has autism). Brett can be reached at email@example.com
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