The Environment Always Wins

4 Jun
“The group to which an individual belongs is the ground for his perceptions, his feelings, and his actions.”

An area that we (you, me, and our groups and organizations) have the greatest gap between what we know and what we do is our understanding of the effects of environment on our behavior and results and how we account for it. We apply a bias so consistently it’s called THE fundamental attribution error. Things that go well, I likely give too much credit to myself and factors within me, while things that do not, I find factors that are outside of me (“not me”) to blame. You do to. It serves our interests and some theories of motivation suggest it protects our most fundamental needs.

From 2004 – 2009, I had the privilege of ministering at the Oakland County Jail Boot Camp on most Thursday evenings. Men, and some women, with remaining sentences of one year could earn a sentence reduction to 8-weeks if they could complete the intensive and challenging program. While in the program, the trainees were subjected to challenges that forced them to adapt to a military-like physical and social regimen. For example, they had to immediately refrain from using pronouns (not easy). It was a very rewarding experience to be involved in the lives of these trainees as they committed to healthier self-disciplines. However, after attending my first graduation ceremony, it became clear that when the trainees graduated, they were met at the ceremony by a social system that knew them as they were and had not changed with them. When we would visit the men and hear about how they were earning their GED’s and gaining skills to secure employment upon completion of the program, they would share how they looked forward to a new life after the program and how they weren’t sure they could make it in the program. I would quickly share that having seen many groups of men come and go, we worry more about their well-being after the program. We tried to ready them for the culture shock they and their loved ones would experience when they were reunited. Most found it difficult to follow through on the changes they planned for their lives. Those that were successful returned to a social system that supported their changes or they changed the social system they lived within.

Is this so different from what we experience in industry?

Main Idea: To learn and change, we need to do more to ensure the environments where we will perform (do what we’re attempting to do differently) support the new behavior. Before assuming the cause of a problem lies in individuals’ knowledge, skill, capability or motivation, we need to look beyond the individual to the environment they will act within. As we as individuals plan to make improvements in our own lives, we must look beyond our individual ability and motivation and ensure we support the changes we want for ourselves in our environment, social systems, and the structured ways we do things that form our habits.

There are many fascinating and counter-intuitive studies around this topic. Below are several I’m happy to share.

In the summer of 2009, I was blessed to attend a week-long program with Edgar Schein at the Cape Cod Institute where he lectured following the release of his book Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help. Dr. Schein presented extensively on “the coercive nature of the social order and the deep impact of culture.” All relationships are governed by the cultural rules of interaction and for change (learning) to occur, these rules have to be suspended to enable safe passage from here to there.

Seth Godin provided creative reference to the culture rules of interaction Dr. Schein describes (Social Economics, Social Theater and Situation Propriety) in his blog Extending the Narrative.

The socialite walks into the ski shop and buys a $3000 ski jacket she’ll wear once. Why? Not because she’ll stay warmer in it more than a different jacket, but because that’s what someone like her does. It’s part of her story. In fact,it’s easier for her to buy the jacket than it is to change her story.

Recent studies published by the NeuroLeadership Institute and it’s affiliates are providing evidence of how the brain functions that illustrate just how social the human brain is. From Your Brain on Facebook by David Rock

Here’s how social the brain is: the brain network that is always on in the background is a region involved in thinking about yourself and other people. This network is so ubiquitous it has been labeled the “default network.” When not doing anything else, the brain’s favorite pastime is to think about people. We actually turn this region down when we do any active processing, such as doing math. One study showed that inactivity for just two seconds switched the default network back on.

Many studies have emerged in the last few years about the importance of human social interactions to our well-being. We know that social rewards light up the brain’s reward circuits more than non-social rewards, and that social threats, such as feeling lonely or ostracized, light up the threat center more than non-social threats. We’ve even seen that social pain, like being left out of an activity, lights up the same regions as physical pain. And that taking Tylenol can reduce social pain more than a placebo.

Just recently we learned that where you are in the pecking order of a group of people taking an IQ test has an impact on your own IQ score. We even know that positive social habits are more important for health than diet and exercise. (Surprisingly, moderate drinking is likely to have you live longer than being a non-drinker, probably due to the social benefits.)

A recent Freakonomics Radio Podcast Episode titled The Truth Is Out There…Isn’t It? shares an engaging account of a study that illustrates how the supremacy of social acceptance is not just for the weak. A study was conducted to understand the effect of scientific literacy on decision making around controversial topics. Common thinking would suggest that the more “rational” scientific types would be less impacted by their social systems, right?

Key points from studies presented:

  • numeracy …should help you to better understand information. And that kind of comprehension is a basic building block for good decisions across a variety of domains. …should also help you process the information more systematically and help you to get to better decisions that are more in line with the facts.
  • however, studies referenced show people who are highly numerate and highly scientifically literate, they seem to actually rely on preexisting beliefs, on these sort of underlying cultural cognitions (how public sentiment about issues is shaped by cultural values) they have about how the world should be structured more than people who are less scientifically literate, or less numerate.
  • So, the more education a culture gets, the more likely we are to have intense polarization at least among the educated classes. High scientific literacy and numeracy were not correlated with a greater fear of climate change. Instead, the more you knew, the more likely you were to hold an extreme view in one direction or the other — that is, to be either very, very worried about the risks of climate change or to be almost not worried at all. In this case, more knowledge led to … more extremism!
  • Why on earth would that be? Our individual beliefs on hot-button issues like this have less to do with what we know than with who we know.
  • While my activities as a consumer, my activities as a voter, they’re just not consequential enough to count. But my views on climate change will have an impact on me in my life. If I go out of the studio here over to campus at Yale, and I start telling people that climate change is a hoax – these are colleagues of mine, the people in my community—that’s going to have an impact on me; they’re going to form a certain kind of view of me because of the significance of climate change in our society, probably a negative one. Now, if I live, I don’t know, in Sarah Palin’s Alaska, or something, and I take the position that climate change is real, and I start saying that, I could have the same problem. My life won’t go as well. 
  • People who are science literate are even better at figuring that out, even better at finding information that’s going to help them form, maintain a view that’s consistent with the one that’s dominant within their cultural group.  
  • it’s actually more important that I align my life with that belief not because of anything I can do, but because it helps me fit in better in my circle, there’s more currency to my belief there. 
  • We like to think that we make up our minds about important issues based on our rational, unbiased assessment of the available facts. But the evidence assembled shows that our beliefs, even about something as scientifically oriented as climate change, are driven by a psychological need to fit in. And so we create strategies for doing this.

Finally, something applied for us practitioners. The model below (Gilbert’s Model) segments the performance factors into three different areas: Information, Means, and Motivation; and two levels: what the organization can provide (Data, Methods & Processes, and Incentives) and what the employee brings to the job (Knowledge, Capability, and Willingness to Work).

If given the options 1 – 6 below for areas to place emphasis to improve your learning and performance as an individual, where do you think your organization should invest? What choice would have the greatest leverage to improve outcomes?

In my experience using this tool when working with leadership teams, about 2/3 of responses prioritize acting on the organizational level (#1 – 3) to improve performance. Research shows that the greatest leverage — the best return of improved outcomes for the least effort—is produced when an organization ensures employees have good data, effective work methods and processes, and fitting incentives. These items also tend to be under the direct control of the organization and lowest cost to change. In contrast, less leverage for driving improvement and greater cost go with change focused on what the person brings to the work situation.

In presenting field theory, Kurt Lewin wrote “all behavior change results from learning – norm reeducation – at the group level.” Change requires action at the group level and should be a participative and collaborative process. If you’re a leader, what change are you making personally to support the changes you want in your organization? If you’re a consultant, what are you doing to ensure environmental support for change following your interventions?

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