What can leaders learn about creating organizational culture from mice?
B.F. Skinner, a noted 20th century behavioral psychologist, conducted an intriguing and provocative experiment using laboratory mice. Using behavioral conditioning he was able to condition one group of mice to believe that through their actions they were able to determine their fate. Using the same methodology, he also succeeded in conditioning another group of mice to believe that there was nothing they could do to alter their fate.
He then placed the first group of mice, the ones that believed that their actions mattered, into a large tub filled with water. As anticipated, this group of mice, when placed in a life-threatening situation, acted instinctively and began to swim to the side of the large water filled tub. Upon reaching the edge of the tub the mice were able to crawl out to safety.
The second group of mice, the ones that believed that their actions were meaningless, when placed in the tub of water simply sank to the bottom and drowned.
Skinner was able to condition the mice by utilizing controlled environments. In one environment the mice were allowed to produce positive stimuli (food) or avoid negative (electrical shock) stimuli through their actions. Conversely, everything that happened to the second group was beyond their control. Their environment was manipulated so that they could neither produce positive stimuli nor avoid negative stimuli through their actions.
Appropriately, the lack of responsiveness displayed by the second group of mice was termed “learned helplessness.”
What does this experiment with mice have to do with my business or practice?—you might ask.
In reality there is much that can be learned from this study. Like Dr. Skinner, as leaders, we are the ones that create or alter the environment (also known as our culture) in which our organizations function.
According to Edgar Schein, an icon of modern leadership thought, the primary function of leadership is to create an organizational culture. The culture that we choose to create will influence every aspect of our organization, and will ultimately determine our practices success or failure.
… The Organizational Culture that we Choose to Create.
Value-based leaders understand that power, like organizational beliefs and purpose, is a shared experience. Cultures like these promote abundance and are characterized by collaborative decision making and a profound belief that everyone has influence.
The power to alter the course of the organization does not reside with a few, it is shared by many. Research studies conducted by the University of Michigan have shown that organizations with a broader sphere of shared influence, had significantly higher performance and productivity, compared to organizations in which power was concentrated at the top.
Believing that our actions and our choices matter is the essential first step to making things happen.
What we have come to recognize as good old “self-confidence” is in reality a learned competency, and today’s effective leaders must create organizational cultures that promote and teach self confidence to each individual team member.
This is accomplished by empowering teams through collaborative decision making and ensuring each team member has been given the knowledge, skill, support, resources, and appropriate authority to accomplish each task required to meet the shared goal.
Leaders that promote a scarcity philosophy view power as a zero sum game in which power is finite and is coveted and controlled by the few at the top.
The resulting organizational culture is characterized by a command and control mentality which is non collaborative, and places no value on individual contributions to the overall organizational direction. Leaders that create these command and control cultures, when compared to value-based leaders often lack self-confidence and are therefore psychologically incapable of sharing power. They also lack trust and utilize excessive control or micromanagement as a means of maintaining power.
The end result is an organization whose individual members, like Skinner’s laboratory mice, come to believe that their actions are inconsequential and they have no ability to alter their environment or control their future. Essentially they just “shut down” and quit trying.
A very interesting dynamic develops when the above scenario plays out. Leaders lacking self confidence and the ability to trust, believe their staff is incapable of making meaningful contributions to the overall organization. The staff, being controlled and micromanaged, senses they are not valued, and finding themselves unable to influence their environment, they simply shut down like Skinner’s mice.
This further validates the leader’s initial thesis that the staff is insignificant, and so begins a destructive downward spiral driven by this self-fulfilling prophecy created in the mind of the leader. Ultimately, cultures like these tend to implode like a house of cards, because the weakened infrastructure is incapable of holding up under even minor stress.
The shared belief that our destiny is a matter of self control is the organizational equivalent of individual self-confidence.
Knowing that our individual actions will have some effect on our organization’s future will compel us to take action…..
The goal for effective leaders is to allow all of this to happen in a psychologically safe environment in which our staff need not fear repercussions for their well-intended actions even if the outcome of these actions is less than ideal.
By creating organizational cultures that are psychologically safe, we draw out our organizational creativity which is often stifled by the psychological repression found in command and control cultures.
Creative thinking is considered to be one our highest level cognitive functions and has been found to be a distinguishing characteristic of exceptional organizations.
The wise leader understands that their organization is best served through shared power, collaboration, and utilization of their organization’s collective creativity.
How do you view yourself as a leader? Are you creating learned helplessness or have you chosen to create an organizational culture filled with shared power and collaboration?
At Line of Sight Coaching, we have created a quick ten-question self-assessment Leadership Quiz. Take this opportunity to gauge your leadership effectiveness and get an answer to the question, “Have you ever wondered about your ability to lead?” Take our Free Leadership Quiz.
Dr. Joel Small and Dr. Edwin McDonald, the founders of Line of Sight Coaching, are dental practitioners, authors, speakers and Business Leadership Coaches who work with healthcare professionals to help them build more successful practices so they can live the balanced life they seek.