Of Skinner, Pavlov, and My Mistakes

Of Skinner, Pavlov, and My Mistakes


In last week’s “Reading for Leading,” I introduced a series on managing, and in particular balancing the need for constructive criticism with the need to support and energize employees. As an initial point I suggested this critical distinction: What we say is quite frequently not what they hear. Comments from last week really extended that idea well.  And, let me take the point a little further this week to help us realize the precarious, universal human context into which we speak.

THE most important thing a leader-parent can do in this domain of mistakes and constructive advice is to understand human nature.  Next week I’ll talk about the next big step: Develop and articulate a constructive Philosophy on Mistakes.

Ahhh, human nature.  When it comes to making mistakes people, i.e., mortals are extremely and understandably sensitive. Mistakes matter. In some cases – aeronautics, engineering, surgery, police on the scene, toddlers near a pool, or simple everyday driving – mistakes can be fatal.  So, at the cellular level we are programmed to avoid mistakes.  And then: We were all kids by a fire, a sharp knife, a stairway, or a busy street. Every one of us got chewed out, spanked, scolded, or grounded so that we would get it right. Teachers, coaches, police, and the clergy followed in behind our parents to reinforce the lessons and heighten the stakes.

We thus learned to play by the rules, to fear stepping across the line. And as a result, whether we were common criminals or national leaders, each of us learned to do some of our absolute worst behavior when we thought we were caught in a mistake. We hid, lied, cheated, sold out our friends, and even hurt people (as a kid, I did every one of those). How often have we heard it said – of CEOs and Presidents, as well as junior high school students – “he would have been so much better off if he’d just admitted his mistake?”  And that, my fellow leaders, should tell you just how highly charged it is when you’re looking into, let alone singling out someone’s mistakes.

We all look like adults, mature, sophisticated, and rational. But within each of us there are stories of crime and punishment, living cells of mistake and shame, and every manager best beware.  Like Pavlov’s dogs and Skinner’s rats, we don’t need to be shocked any longer. We’ve internalized the fear.  So, you can say, as a manager-friend said to me a while ago, “My people know that my bark is worse than my bite.” But it doesn’t take much more than a look – let alone a bark – to elicit all kinds of highly charged emotional and mental tumult. (And remember, we hide it well!)

You’ve got to account for that, if you’re going to,

Lead with your best self.

Enhanced by Zemanta
  • As someone who used to feel incredible shame whenever I made a mistake, I learned the most from leaders who could admit their own. Thanks for reminding me to keep practicing mistake admission for myself and those I would lead.

    • editor’s note:
      Katherine Crowley is co-author of two excellent books, Working With You is Killing Me, and Working for You Isn’t Working for Me.
      Given your experience and training as a psychotherapist and business coach, it would be great to read a little from you on how you have learned to manage what many of us know can be distracting-to-debilitating thoughts and feelings that occur when we err. Indeed, the comment after yours speaks so candidly about this very point.
      Many thanks!

  • Thank you for your very timely post. As someone who is currently dealing with a mistake she made a couple months ago that has blown up to be even bigger than originally thought, I can see why my internal feelings are to run away. . . it never occured to me that some of this is as a result of making mistakes as a child and how they were handled. I have to continually remind myself that I am an adult who needs to face the situation and take appropriate responsibility (atone for what I did but not allow other things to creep in and compound the situation). I am responsible for my actions but not the mistakes of others. Thank you for this awesome reminder!

  • Gladly. The fact is that when we make a mistake it triggers certain automatic reactions (chemical, physical, neurological) that we actually don’t have much control over — shame, embarrassment, a sinking sensation, feeling like we’re horrible people, etc.

    The best tactic initially is to realize that you’ve been “activated” and take whatever steps you can to flush out the toxic thoughts/feelings.

    As you know, we strongly recommend vigorous exercise or physical activity to “unhook physically.” After you do this, the next step is to look at the facts of the situation. Often this can best be done with a trusted confidante. Usually, the facts are not as horrendous as our feelings about it.

    Next, ‘fess up, and discover that you won’t dissolve as a result of having erred. Then see what you can do to remedy the situation and forgive yourself for being an earthling. (easier said than done)

    These are the techniques I use.

  • Hi, I’m reading Lost at School by Ross W. Greene. He confirms a belief I have that people of all ages want to do well. They don’t chose to do poorly/make mistakes because of lack of motivation. He states, “Behind every challenging behavior is an unsolved problem and lagging skill.” That’s why criticism and what many call consequences are counterproductive. With this in mind, leaders/managers/parents/teachers/everyone may benefit from less punishment, “behavior management”, and more trustbuilding and teaching. Thanks for considering a more need satisfying method of leadership!

  • The unconscious mind is a powerful force driving our default behavior. However, becoming more aware of our personal reactive tendencies can help us to make better behavioral choices based on the situation at hand.

    Our attitudes are choices, some of the most important choices we will ever make. Becoming aware of the affect our personality and default tendencies have on the people in our lives helps us engineer better communication and leadership styles.

  • It has been my experiential learning that I must at all times be in communication with those I supervise. Every day throughout the day. Then when mistakes occur it is a part of regular communication that this is brought to light. Emotions are lessened and life goes on. To think that I, or anyone, can “easily” bring a mistake to a worker with whom little or no communcation has taken place, or there is NO relationship, is false thinking.

    Being a supervisor ain’t easy. It is hard work day by day. Blessings come when one works hard at daily communication with all parties. Then we can rejoice and be glad.


  • Dan
    What a great article. I am a minister serving in a Judicatory pastor for our region which is 117 church’s. how often problems could have been solved before they ever escatlated if a minister could have said “I’m sorry’ (and really mean iit)

    Not only are clergy not exempt from the challenge of apologizing when it is appropriate, Sometimes it seems they are burdened with the need to be right more than most.

    I’m moving to Ohio soon, but I shall take your weekly newsletter with me. I trust this will continue even after Jennifer leaves office?


  • I believe that a mistake being noticed is an opportunity for opening a channel of communication that is already provided with a subject, argument, context, and directive.

    I do what the RFL mentions all the time, hate on myself for making some mistake. The consequences of a mistake can be severe and lifelong, especially in interpersonal communications, considering that the other person might never want to speak with you again. I like what Katherine Crowley has said about “unhooking”. I’ve learned to do more or less exactly that over time, but I hadn’t ever read anybody describing it so clearly.

    It’s also obvious that some people are fault-minded, and may even find ways to reinforce their needlessly criticising behaviour. I also do that myself, often taking every opportunity to point out flaws and problems. I always think “I can fix this!” It took me a long time to learn to sense when it’s appropriate to use that and when not to. There are still situations where I believe it’s appropriate to be a complete curmudgeon and others believe it’s best to be a toad. I wouldn’t think twice about telling the Governor and everyone in her party that I believe some of her political allies make her look bad, or telling a friend’s mother not to be so strict. Most people would sit on their hands in either situation. I just am never content at not taking an opportunity or advantage when it presents itself and when I know I can gain without faulting my morals.

    Through all my slow, ongoing, self-discipline against offering too much (often unwanted) criticism or taking it too hard when others offer their own criticism, I still maintain my sense that being critical is an opportunity for both parties. Yes, it’s unhealthy to take it too heavily and not figure out what your response is and how to provide what you need. And yes, it’s unwise to develop a reputation for offering unsolicited criticism, sage or not. But everyone who’s been criticised has had the opportunity to rebuke or correct the criticism, on the spot, and take advantage of the open channel to in turn criticise the critic, who therefore also has the opportunity to learn something critical about his or her self.

    I guess that ties directly into mistakes being things that are learned from, seeing the positive in something negative. Criticism can, of course, be mistaken, too. It could be a mistake to blow it out of proportion, or to misplace it to begin with. However, pathologically, a mistake is never where something begins or ends: something led to the mistake or caused the mistake, or caused the person to make the mistake; and, it wasn’t the mistake itself that is probably being attacked (everybody makes mistakes, it’s well understood) but what results from the mistake that usually gets people upset.

    We tend to want to clear it all up and go back to the original cause, sometimes as far back as possible, a tendency I have to fight in order for my opinions to stay relevant. I like to argue things back to the earliest documented times and sometimes times before, but most people get sick of that and smear me as a bore. And we tend to want to extrapolate exactly what the consequences are, for our own sakes, sometimes to the extent that civil courts award exorbitant sums for seemingly small matters. So in any case, we have a natural tendency to already “think big” when it comes to criticism, so naturally most criticism has a tendency to seem unfair when somebody was just “being mortal”. When we made a mistake and are earning our Enth Degree from everyone affected, it’s natural to feel like we’re trying to reel in all the cops who are chasing after us, trying to get them to tighten up the dragnet so we can safely slip out through where they’ve already looked to somewhere they’d never think to.

    But when there are smart people like Dan Mulhern or Katherine Crowley explaining to us not to freak out and go jumping out of a window just because we alone from the confines of the mail room or server closet have ruined the entire quarter and perhaps the entire future of the whole company, we have every reason to just admit our errors and offer to help clean up before going home. And when those subpoenas or judgments arrive in the mailbox, you can feel satisfied to just fire up your ‘gypsie wagon and move to the mountains. It’s a lot better than screaming at your boss, or saying “I hate you” and stomping to the restroom, or making your hypertension or gastrointestinal disorder worse by freaking out, and it sure as heck beats jumping out a window, no matter WHAT the stock tickers and headlines and people milling around the water cooler mumbling your name say about you.

    You should talk with the person criticising you. Take your opportunity as the subject of the discussion to provide more information, to illuminate and enlighten your critics. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong.

    But, sometimes, you can’t take that chance. So, whatever it is, I agree, if you haven’t checked out the scene and you’re really worried that somebody knows what you did and is out to getcha, and it’s giving you nightmares and hibijibis, and you can’t unhook, you should just go tell whoever you think would care the most and confess. But if you can “unhook” (I like that term), you should just find a confidant, place your trust in them as your confessor, and drop that terrible, crushing weight. Which is why in my opinion, reputable churches, businesses, and hospitals always accommodate private confession with a guarantee of the utmost confidentiality: it’s a mortal necessity.

    And otherwise you’re liable to make a lot more mistakes!

  • As someone who spends most of his work day dealing with people who are alleged to have made big mistakes, this post of Mr. Mulhern’s was of particular interest to me. I am witness every day to the great lengths to which people will go to avoid responsibility, shift blame, make lame excuses and offer insincere apologies–even when it is clearly in their best interest to do otherwise. When a forthright admission of wrongdoing would serve them well, instead I hear phrases like “blown out of proportion” and “all a big misunderstanding”.

    All that led me to conclude that there is something deep within us that hates being revealed as someone who is less than perfect, who is capable of acting carelessly, or who is capable of being selfishly hurtful. For some reason we will go to great lengths to avoid having that paniful truth about us revealed to others–or more importantly–to ourselves. Why? Why are we like that? Why, when God confronted Adam and Eve in the Garden, did Adam blame God as well as Eve and why did Eve blame the serpent? Why were they so quick to shift responsibility from themselves and place blame onto someone else? Why is my first gut reaction to my own mistake an attempt to engage in that very same responsibility-dodging behavior? I have found no satisfactory answer, though I am still searching. This is why Dan’s blog post was interesting and helpful. It delves into the why.

    Acceptance of responsibility is a big thing with me, so big that I was led to start my own blog that is laser-focused on that topic. Why is it important to accept responsibility, to avoid excuses, to refrain from shifting blame and to make sincere apologies? Feel free to check it out at http://www.acceptingresponsibility.wordpress.com. My next blog post my very well be a further exploration of the topic of Dan’s post–of course giving credit to him where credit is due. Anyone have any thoughts to share??

    I am especially interested in the “why” question. Are we hard-wired physiologically? Or, as Dan suggests, is it learned behavior? Both? How did humanity get saddled with this tendency “to do some of our absolute worst behavior when we thought we were caught in a mistake”?

  • Scott Schofield,

    You mention the part of a person that retreats from existing as a vulnerable creature. I agree, I think this exists, and I agree with most of your conclusions, as well. But I have to ask, what causes that revulsion from imperfection? It doesn’t seem like it would occur naturally in people who have become accustomed to the concept of being less than perfect and only as good as they possibly can be. But we have a lot to deal with in the world besides ourselves.

    Some things seem to promote perfection as more than just an ideal. Time, for instance. The measurement of time is a cruelly exact science. The value of a dollar must be allowed to fluctuate, while the length of an hour must never. The number of children you have in your family can change, but the number of hours you have in a day never will. When we’re trying to meet a deadline, we’re under the clock, and our actions become constrained within the frame of time. If we fail to meet the deadline, we don’t just reveal our vulnerability, we lose out in more material fashion. If we don’t complete journalism on time, we lose credit. If we don’t finish organising on time, our logistics break down. Could our “time discipline” be one source of our perpetual frustration with our own imperfections?

    How would that be categorized? Time is hardly hard-wired; encounters with primitive peoples have given anthropologists ample evidence that there is indeed a relatively peaceful life outside of the concept of time (relatively, as compared to our “own” hectic, industrial world). I think it would be more correct to assert that this bewilderment by time is a learned behaviour.

    There are other things that aren’t hard-wired, things which we learn to a point of perfection of the art even while we can never live up to such perfection ourselves. Things which we then apply under constraints where nearness to perfection is expected when perfection itself isn’t demanded outright: language; symbolic logic; number; math; art; religion; science; medicine; machining; tennis; analysis; inspection; leadership. Every time we “gear up” to perform our best as these tasks, we aren’t really gearing up for “just the best we can do”, every achiever prepares to do even better than others expect, even better than others can manage to, and even better than anybody ever has. That’s how we get ahead in life, how we manage to secure and to keep capital, how we manage to earn the respect and admiration of others, and how we stay fit and “on top of our game”.

    I think maybe the appropriate question isn’t “why”, Scott Schofield, but “when”. “When” do we let our guard down, show our vulnerabilities, and just be our imperfect selves? Around family and friends but never in front of competitors? At the water cooler but never when the boss is walking by? On the bus but never in the pool? In the office appointment but never in front of the whole class?

    I’ve always been impressed with the tremendous air of relaxation that some competitive people can gift to everyone in their audience just by being relaxed and imperfect in the midst of a total catastrophe of hard lines. They give you that feeling that you can relax, right then. Whether they’re right or wrong, they make an impression right then that’s positive. If it happened at the wrong time, it would be lethargy.

    Bringing it to a fine point is a balance between learned and hardwired, because it takes a lot of experience to use a finely honed skill such as that, and it can’t be done without taking advantage of your natural gifts, your senses and abilities. But the insistence that we have to strive to be perfect, even when we know fully well that we aren’t, doesn’t come from any innate ability. It’s a self-imposed disability that we suffer from *despite* our gifts and talents. That can only come from a learned behaviour.

    You could, perhaps, argue that a cautionary reflex inside is at the heart of it, but if caution were teaching us then we’d learn *not* to strive too hard, not to do too much, not to expect perfection any more than you’d expect to be okay plucking some loose bolts out of the teeth of some quickly rotating meshed gears. So if it were innate talent at work, something we’re “hard-wired” for, it would have come about for the purpose of success.

    You could perhaps argue that it’s an instance that goes against self-preservation for the sake of the group. Now, if the context were being the hero in life-or-death situations, I would have to agree. But I’m pretty sure we were speaking in a more general context. And the group benefits more from people who operate on an even keel and at a steady pace than it does from attempts at over-achievement that just burn the hopeful out and burn up resources in the doing (this has actually been proven mathematically). And, again, the context isn’t resource management (though that applies) necessarily so much as “why do we lie to cover up mistakes”.

    I think Dan covered the gamut: crime; lifesaving; getting spanked; response conditioning. We obviously have a modern culture that attempts to control too much, including those who are vulnerable. I admit to the readers of my online bicycling community several times a year that I offer my expertise on the best way to lock up your bike because I used to steal bikes. I deal with God’s payback on that all the time: I haven’t been able to keep a bike in my possession, they all get stolen, usually by little kids. Would you want to push the investigation to nab some little kids? I wouldn’t, but there we go: many, many people would find that reprehensible. “They’ll learn more if they get caught and slapped.” Really? I grew up in an abusive, alcoholic household; and unimaginably worse than that. It didn’t do me or anybody else any good to put me through that — I came out normal, not under anybody’s thumb. What I’m saying is, though, even *I* know firsthand that we’re a society of troublemaking controllers: if *I* had the right sort of evidence that somebody had done something wrong, I might very well use it as a form of extortion or blackmail. I can’t say that I’m a perfect person who wouldn’t. I have too many things I want in my life to say that I would never, ever get what I want through coercion. But that’s why I always say to people, “don’t be so ashamed”. I can also say that it’s an extremely dangerous thing to ever do, even to consider doing. It’s counteractive to my “health” just to say that I so much as might be the sort of person to do it, even if it doesn’t raise a liability for me. But, again, I’m not ashamed to say it and, I’m making that infinitesimal sacrifice for what I hope is the sake of illumination.

    So, there’s another tool of our amazing, glorious society. Shaming. Have you ever shamed a child? I managed to bring up my three half-siblings without ever doing that. But that’s not the norm, and once again, many many people would say to me: how dare you — you *have* to shame children in order to produce valuable members of society. And yet we have the word of child psychologists and many others that shaming is a shame in its own right, that it’s a horrific legacy of a culture that isn’t as right as it often self-righteously claims.

    So you see, we are products of our culture, but it’s entirely through learning. Consider if you’d never thought “hey, yeah, I could always tell my neighbor what I’ll do if he doesn’t do what I want” until you read what I said above about extortion: now you’ve been corrupted. It’s like saying you wouldn’t have ever thought of adultery had the priest not said “sin” (that’s more illustriously stated in the book of Romans). All because of our shared culture.

    If you have somebody messing up, and then lying to cover up the mistakes, and running around, their head all shocked up because of what they fear, then you’ve successfully cowed somebody in and made them your little finger-puppet. That’s what despots do. In my opinion America has become a culture of little despots running around with nothing to do but enter into open competition with one another. It’s why our economy is the way it is, why our attitudes are the way they are, etc. It’s learned because we teach it, outright, because our megalomania — our delusional lifelong grab for the ultimate power and success, our need to have nothing stand in our way of that — demands that we cow them in, that we hammer them down and make them fit right. “The nail that sticks up gets pounded down” in more ways than one.

    So, I think Dan’s RFL is right on the money, and it makes me ever more anxious to get ahold of a copy of “Be Real”.

  • >