Leading with Psychology: Some Practical Lessons to Get Better Results

Published: Nov 28, 2018
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Dr. Thomas (Ted) Boyce

Dr. Thomas E. (Ted) Boyce is President and Senior Consultant with the Center for Behavioral Safety, LLC, a safety and leadership consulting firm located in San Carlos, CA. Dr. Boyce helps organizations solve business problems with person-centered solutions that draw from his training and experiences as an applied psychologist and behavioral strategist. For nearly 20 years, Dr. Boyce has shared his practical knowledge on motivation, persuasion, authority, and influence to both public and private organizations representing a variety of industries. He is a sought-after keynote speaker and publishes regularly in both mainstream magazines and refereed scientific journals. Dr. Boyce received his PhD in Psychology from the American Psychological Association-accredited graduate program at Virginia Tech and was a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is a full member of the American Psychological Association and the International Association for Behavior Analysis and a professional musician.

Recently, Dr. Boyce was interviewed by Leader’s Edge.

AMA: How can psychology help a manager to lead in today’s business environment?

Dr. Boyce: Wow… let’s start with the loaded question. My initial thought is: “How can it not help?” All kidding aside, psychology is broadly the study of human thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. And, what is the primary role of a manager or supervisor? Dealing with people. So, an understanding of psychology helps leaders better understand and manage the complexity of people in a way that produces better results.

AMA: What specifically is involved in managing the complexity of people?

Dr. Boyce: Psychologists have demonstrated that behavior can actually be quite orderly and predicable when it is understood. This understanding requires that leaders recognize that the causes of behavior are often external to the person. In fact, many psychologists argue that what one does is firmly grounded in prior experience and the current situation. These are things leaders can change or manage.

For example, if someone arrives late to a meeting it might be simply because they have another commitment that ends at the same time as the one to which they are late. Alternatively, they may have learned that there’s no reason to show up on time because the information they missed is repeated for them when they arrive; or perhaps the meeting rarely starts on time because the facilitator is unorganized and not prepared. Thus, the benefit gained by finishing a phone call or email they were working on just prior to the meeting is not offset by something negative for arriving late. These are examples of factors that leaders can change that will have a direct impact on the behavior of the person or persons arriving late.

AMA: To help us understand how psychology can help in this situation, what would you recommend leaders do to prevent employees from arriving late to meetings?

Dr. Boyce: If our analysis of late arrivals is consistent with what I just mentioned, I would first want to be sure that those I want in attendance don’t have an actual conflict with the time of my meeting. That is, I would make sure that on-time arrivals are physically possible. Then, I would structure my meeting such that there is value to arriving on time: put important information and decisions at the top of the agenda, agree that information will not be repeated for those arriving late, and most definitely start that meeting on time. Finally, I would make the meeting fun by programming some lighter moments throughout. These changes will add value to arriving on time and will keep employees engaged.

AMA: To change topics a little, what does “perception is reality” mean?

Dr. Boyce: I’m confident that many people have heard this statement. It’s so common that it’s almost cliché. Having said that, I also imagine that many leaders don’t truly know what perception is and what role it plays in management, at least that’s my perception…no pun intended!

Seriously, in the most basic sense, perception is the meaning that we assign to the physical reality we experience. It is a form of interpretation that frames our current experience. This interpretation will be informed by our prior experience and the broader context of the current situation. Our current emotion might also impact perceptions in a positive or negative way. The extent to which two employees may differ along these dimensions may cause them to see the same thing differently. What they “see” will influence what they say and do. Thus, perception is reality. Psychologists have long demonstrated this with “Gestalt” figure-ground objects where more than one object can be seen in a picture. The most famous is the drawing that can be perceived as either an “old lady” or a “young woman.” Some people see only one or the other. Others see both. Regardless, both perceptions of the physical reality are correct. In the business world, to understand that both could be true is helpful in avoiding conflict.

AMA: To see the “same thing differently” is an interesting idea. How have you used this concept in your consulting work?

Dr. Boyce: Let me think for a moment…I was working with a group of mechanics at a large industrial site whose morale was low because they perceived their work days to be “chaotic.” And, this was understandable because they started their day with a list of priorities only to have those regularly changed when something more critical required their attention during their shift. So, they started a lot of tasks but rarely got to finish them. It was the nature of the work that would not change. And, it was frustrating to them because they didn’t often see the outcome of their efforts—getting a piece of equipment that wasn’t working to a point of being operational. So, my challenge was to change their perception because I was not likely to change the physical reality.

After talking with them for several minutes, I thought of another group at the facility that was responsible for a monotonous and repetitive task. I mentioned this group to the mechanics, who were all familiar with the work done in that neighboring department. Upon creating this image, I said one simple thing: “How nice is it that you guys have variety to your work day?”

The emotional improvement in the room was unmistakable. Mechanics who had been seeing their reality as “chaos” were now starting to frame it in a different way… as “variety.” Indeed, the meeting was adjourned and the most outspoken of the mechanics exclaimed with a smile on his face…” I’ll tell you, Doc, I’m happy that it never gets boring around here.” I had changed their perception by substituting a more positive description of the same physical reality. This exemplifies how “perception is reality” and why it is so important for leaders to understand this.

AMA: We have time for one more question. What one lesson from psychology would you want leaders to learn?

Dr. Boyce: The perils of using character labels such as “lazy” or “risky” or “careless” to explain behavior. You see, these labels are merely descriptions of patterns of behavior that we have come to observe. They are not causes. When we use words such as these to explain behavior, we commit an error in judgment that psychologists call “the fundamental attribution error.” This is simply assigning the cause of behavior to some aspect of a person’s character or personality rather than to some situational factor.

For example, the person described as lazy may have experience either in the current work environment (or a prior one) that initiative taking and independent thinking are not valued. Thus, they have merely learned to wait for the next instruction. Likewise, the person who is described as risky may have been rewarded in the past for such actions by receiving praise for how much work he or she accomplished while not ever experiencing an injury (even though they’ve increased their chances of this by virtue of their less-than-safe behavior). So, they’ve learned to take shortcuts because they were inadvertently praised for their level of production and because they were lucky enough not to get hurt, damage equipment, or create some other issue.

The simple truth is that using labels gives leaders a way out. It makes the person whose behavior we don’t like the problem rather than the situation or how we have led and managed in that situation. When leaders accept responsibility for their role in the employees’ behavior they don’t like, they can do something about it. While this always produces a better result, it takes work. So many leaders blame the employee. I think they should stop doing that without a thorough review of the alternative explanations. A fundamental knowledge of psychology will allow leaders in any organization to perform this analysis. Moreover, they will realize that the best way to change someone else’s behavior is to change their own!

AMA: Dr. Boyce, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

Dr. Boyce: Thank you for having me. It was my pleasure.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Thomas (Ted) Boyce  offers private consultations, onsite training, and conference presentations. Learn more at http://www.cbsafety.com/ or contact Dr. Boyce directly at [email protected].