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Behaviorism finds fans in management

A Finnish trainer with Hungarian origins believes that the next big thing in company performance management is the behaviorist approach

You have probably heard of famous early 20th century experiments with rats and dogs where electric shocks were used as punishment and food as reward to teach the caged animals a certain behavior. The experiments of B. F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov were revolutionary at the time: they introduced a new thought that behavior could be studied scientifically without understanding how the mind works exactly.

Behaviorism has influenced business management methods in the past, but it might be set to start a second life in performance management, a pastor with Hungarian origins, Árpád Kovács, who lives and works in Finland, believes.The behaviorist approach, mainly applied in adult learning today, is based on the theory that a person’s behavior can be described as a series of impulses and reactions given to these. It says that the human thought processes cannot be observed, thus the only thing we should be concerned about are people’s actions.

“Operant behavior determines people’s relations. If you want to make changes in an organization, you have to start by changing people’s behavior,” Kovács explained at a recent visit to Budapest where he was invited by the Central European Business Center to give a lecture on the topic.

It is change management simplified: first the targeted behavior needs to be defined, then actions that steer the person toward the required behavior should be rewarded or reinforced.

It is also important that a person should always be compared to him- or herself, instead of another person. This way, Kovács pointed out, individual performance will be boosted and it also increases creativity. “If members of an organization are not forced to compete with each other, they will be more willing to share ideas thus inspiring each other to be more creative,” he said.

Behaviorism’s areas of application also include behavioral systems analysis, which outlines how each components of a system interact, including how each individual contributes to the overall functioning of the system. If the entire organization is analyzed as a system, one can identify areas of improvement that will produce the largest positive impact on the organization and focus on planning and managing the variables that support the desired performance.

Behavior-based safety focuses on reducing injuries and promoting safe behavior for employees at workplaces. While other methods approach workplace-safety from a mechanical point of view, behavior-based safety aims to change employees’ behavior so that injuries are reduced.

Behaviorism has, however, many critics. Their main argument against it is that behaviorism reduces human beings to machines and the mind to a "black box," reacting to the environment instead of acting with thought. “This is a scientifically proven method, and has worked with quite satisfactory results in education for a long time,” Kovács argued.

It is certainly becoming more accepted for scholarly study: a number of universities now also offer graduate programs on behaviorism analysis; Kovács himself is attending a post-graduate course of applied behavior analysis at the University of Tampere in Finland.

Modern-day behaviorism, called behaviorism analysis and one of its subfields, organizational behavior management, is increasingly popular with companies in the US. Although the method is practically unknown in the Hungarian business world, global corporations such as Kodak or 3M have been rediscovering it.