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Bringing out the Best in People Review

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, particularly due to my slant towards anything in the field of behavioral psychology. If I could sum this entire book in two words, they would be: Positive Reinforcement. Here are some of the highlights that stood out as I read this book.

Antecedent -> Behavior -> Consequence

Behaviors do not reveal as much about the person as they do about the environment the person works in. This phrase stood out to me like a sore thumb because, as much as we may disagree, we are directly affected by our environment. I notice my behavior change when I am around certain groups of people, or even locations. I would argue that those who disagree may be confusing personality with behavior – which can be a manifestation of personality.

Oftentimes, leaders try to change behaviors through the use of antecedents – or commands/requests made prior to a behavior. For example, a daily reminder to test your code would be an antecedent to better tested code. This is a very common approach, and one that I have experienced and used. However, the author points out that antecedents quickly become exhaustive to the issuer, because antecedents only guarantee behavioral change one time (or a couple of times) instead of becoming habit. Would you as a leader be okay with using a particular antecedent on an individual 10,000 times (the frequency to make a behavior permanent)? At that point the behavior may become habit, but so will the expectation that the leader continues the antecedent.

Instead, to identify which behaviors will occur, look to the consequence, or the effect a behavior(s) has on an individual. For example, the most common example I can think of today is health/weight loss. The common antecedents: billboards, commercials about the dangers of being obese, articles that identify research and highlight risks, etc. However, many people continue to eat unhealthily – out of choice! (Note: No specific numbers available however the fact that unhealthy chains are still up in business coupled by a growing obesity rate in the United States reveals such). Why? Because of how it makes a person feel. Nevermind the fact that sugar should be consumed in far less quantities, or the research fast food companies have done to ensure an addiction forms when biting into one of their products, the rate of return on such antecedents becomes very low because they do not address how a person feels.

Changing behavior requires a deep analysis into the consequences occurring after a behavior is performed.

PIC/NIC analysis

The PIC/NIC analysis is a very simple and intuitive way to organize research into why certain behaviors occur/do not occur. You can read more about it here.  Reasons for behaviors can be classified in three ways: Positive (or negative) Рhow it makes you feel, Immediate (or Future) Рif the benefits of the behavior occur now or later, and Certain (or Uncertain) Рif the benefits of the behavior are likely to be experienced or not. Behaviors that are likely to be repeated will usually be Positive, Immediate, and Certain (PIC).

For example, getting a quick meal at McDonalds (despite how unhealthy it may be) may seem negative from a health standpoint, but it would be positive (Hot meal made for someone), Immediate (no need to wait to experience the hot food in your stomach) and Certain (the meal will occur and is not contingent on any other condition).  A behavior with predominantly NIC reasons (negative, immediate, and certain) falls into the negative reinforcement camp.

It takes some work to identify why some behaviors seem to keep recurring. For example, when trying to understand why a coworker was not completely sold on unit tests and had a hard time doing them, I applied the PIC/NIC analysis to determine what was going on:

When I applied this analysis, I realized that the positive benefits were not guaranteed, and the negative reasons (NIC) revealed why unit tests were particularly difficult. Note that developers who read this and believe in unit tests (I am one of them) may see this and think, “Wow your analysis is wrong.” Stable code and fewer bugs are good things. And they are listed as positive. However, earlier we discussed how behavior is determined by consequences, not antecedents. If immediate value cannot be realized, then the behavior will require plenty of antecedents (or a negative instance where someone experiences the worst of an issue easily solved by unit tests). Continuing to argue/advocate for the use of unit tests will not lead to habits or sustainable behavior, until the NICs are addressed, somehow.


Considering I just finished Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg, I found the conflicting viewpoint interesting. While Duhigg argues that smaller goals help focus a person as far as improvement, and stretch goals serve as the umbrella (or vision), Daniels argues that goals limit an individual from maximizing his/her potential. Why? Because goals that are left to be set up by the individual are not ambitious and the positive reinforcement that follows afterwards determines their effectiveness. For example, say a leader rewards each team member with a $5 gift card if they meet their goals. The default behavior would be to set easy enough goals (or goals that look hard but really do not push the individual) to maximize on the positive reinforcement. Or, if a person risks being fired for not meeting his/her goals (negative reinforcement), the goals are scaled down to a likely level to avoid being unemployed. While I personally believe that goals are necessary and people with the right mindset will use goals to their advantage, I think the point of being against goals here is not so much the goal itself but the reinforcement that follows. Leaders should use the right reinforcement to maximize the benefits of goals.

Employee of the Month

Aubrey Daniels campaigns against Employee of the Month because it utilizes more negative reinforcement instead of positive reinforcement. The reasons why it is more negative reinforcement? Only one person can achieve an award, putting the person in direct competition with teammates. Chances are the person can only win once, so after you win the incentive to work like an Employee of the Month all the time disappears. The standards for achieving the award are subjective and not consistently applied. And what exactly does winning the award get someone? I can identify with some of these viewpoints. When I was an RA during college each month we had to change our bulletin boards, and there was a small cash prize for the person who did the best. I won it once, so I tried winning it again. However, the next month my bosses told the group that even though I had a really good second bulletin board since I won the previous month they could not pick me twice. Can you imagine how my behavior changed? In addition, such reward tiers can easily discourage others who may feel they do not have the know how to win (e.g. others may not produce great bulletin boards due to less artistic qualities, etc).

I have condensed my observations about this book into the following sentence:

For positive reinforcement to work, it must be fair, frequent, and fast.

Fair positive reinforcement does not mean equal. I do not advocate lowering standards for some and not others. However, as in the Employee of the month example, everyone should be given a fair opportunity to achieve a given objective. It should be frequent, because repetition leads to a habit. Like the modified saying goes, “Practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent.” Continually reinforcing behaviors that align with company objectives will prove fruitful for leaders in the long run. Positive reinforcement should also be fast. If there is significant lag time between behavior and reward, then the reward will mistakenly be tied to a different behavior. For leaders, this requires front line leadership, especially if they do the reinforcement. I think of dog training, where behaviors must be immediately rewarded or they will forget why they receive a treat. While it seems belittling to compare human behavior to that of dogs, both are still living organisms that respond to their environment in the same way.

This book has changed my outlook on productivity, and I hope that these points will help guide me as I build a high performing, cross functional, and self organizing team.