Behavioral Science in Leadership: Let’s Talk! (Author: Carly Chivers, MS, BCBA)

March 02, 2021 11:23 AM | Anonymous member

“Leaders create the culture, the place, and the conditions for employees and their work.”


-       Aubrey Daniels


Let’s talk about behavioral science in the workplace, and dissect the who, what, where, when, and how of the quote above, shall we? Pull up a chair, grab some coffee or tea, and let’s talk about behavioral science in the workplace.


The Who


Leaders are not just found in executive leadership and management. If we look close enough, there are leaders throughout every level, every department, and every team of an organization. Many employees have unique strengths related not only to their position, but to other aspects of their work environment like team building or training. Employees contribute to their team and to the organization as a whole in unique and creative ways every day, but if we are not looking closely, we will miss opportunities to help these individuals cultivate their talents.


It is the responsibility for leaders to recruit, identify, cultivate, encourage, and develop others in the organization. This is easier said than done, of course. It is especially difficult when an organization is experiencing major changes such as rapid growth or downsizing, implementing new data management software, or undergoing a change in leadership. Leaders can become overwhelmed in these situations, and they may decide to put professional development on the back burner. Perhaps, developing and strengthening employees may even be more important than ever during the times of organizational turbulence. Why, you ask? Well, these major changes can add additional responsibilities to everyone’s positions and can create stress that lasts a good long while. Until things level out, and employees go through the learning curve and adapt to the changes, support from their supervisor that is specific, individualized, planned, thoughtful, and timely, can help reduce stress all around. Providing this caliber of support also encourages the team members to do the same for one another. With that being said, leadership development becomes all the more important. Leaders have tremendous pressure on them from many different angles within the organization; from their team, and from their supervisors. It is a good investment for the organization to put resources into developing their leaders with best practices in leadership, grounded in science. Behavioral science can contribute a great deal to leadership development, and many other practice areas within organizational development.


The What


Leaders are tasked with achieving quality performance from staff and teams to reach goals for the organization and carry out its mission. How do leaders achieve great performance from teams? Influence. A leader’s behavior affects a performer’s behavior and vice versa. We all influence each other’s behavior every day. A basic understanding of behavioral science can help leaders design highly effective behavioral systems of influence. Behavioral science provides a proven method of figuring out why people do the things they do. After all, an organization is made of people. People work together to produce things. So, it makes sense to take a good look into the people systems in an organization to see how things are working.  Are people happy and productive? Are people frustrated and stressed out? Behavioral science can help the organization create a work environment that supports positive and productive behaviors that are tied directly to desired results. It can help them make everyone’s work more valuable and meaningful to an individual, but also help them create systems that are highly valuable to the organization as a whole. What is the result? Efficient, effective, and happy employees. What do the results look like? Improved employee retention rates, productivity rates, multiculturalism, diversity and anti-oppressive practices, and employee satisfaction to name a few things.


The Where


Our work environment changed a great deal because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many families are tasked with working from home, managing their children’s school day, and perhaps also taking care of an elderly mother or father. For those who are working at their physical workplace, things have also changed with social distancing and sanitization rules.


What leaders can do to continue to support employees during these trying times, is to ask, listen, and act. Ask your employees how they are doing. Listen with empathy, and act to understand all of the variables involved in their day-to-day and how it affects their work. Think about all of the emotions that may be involved. Identify ways to help them arrange their work environment to best support them; whether that be a flexible schedule, swapping of responsibilities, or even just more frequent check-ins to stay ahead of problems. Lastly, do what you say you are going to do. Be careful and thoughtful about what you promise. Show up, stay true to your word, and follow through for co-workers. Don’t just tell them you value them with your words, show them they are valued with your actions.


The When


Time management and self management are not not typically taught in educational programs, or at least not to the extent which they could be. From a behavioral perspective, timing is a big factor which influences behavior. Simply put by Daniels & Daniels (2007), management is tasked with influencing “...employees to do the right things at the right time in the right way.” Gaining and understanding of variables that affect performance is critical in achieving this.


Let’s think about an example.


Meet Meg and Joseph. Meg is highly productive, and her nickname around the office is “Meg the Machine”, because she always gets so much stuff done. She completes her minimum responsibilities, and is also contributing in ways above and beyond the minimum expectations of her supervisor.


Joseph struggles to get the bare minimum completed. He’s often falling behind on tasks, and he feels like he is barely staying afloat at work a lot of the time.


Why is Meg’s productivity rate so much higher than Joseph’s? What are the variables impacting Meg’s performance? What are the variables impacting Joseph’s performance? It could be as simple as time management, or it could be something else, of course. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say Meg excels at self management. Joseph, perhaps, does not have the same self management skill set. Joseph might need some coaching on forecasting his work and managing his calendar. Maybe re-arranging the order of tasks would make the work more manageable for him. Perhaps setting up some recurring appointments on the calendar or some additional reminders may help Joseph stay ahead of the work. Coaching employees on some simple self management skills can boost not only their productivity, but also their spirit.


The Why


It is simple. As July Clow (2012) puts it, we spend most of our waking lives at work, so why not invest in teaching our leaders how to make it the best possible work culture for all employees.


The How


Throughout the previous sections of this article, I’ve shared bits and pieces of how behavioral science applies to the workplace. Below is a summary of terms and definitions, many of which are likely very familiar, but perhaps are nice refreshers. Do you notice anything that you can improve upon in your workplace?


      Professional development: The process of setting learning goals, completing learning activities related to those goals, and gaining new skills for succeeding and excelling in the workplace.

      Influence: The power of persons or things which produce effects on the actions, behaviors, opinions, and thoughts of others.

      Behavioral system: A group of interrelated elements that form an entity (Malott, 2003).

      Work environment: The people, place, and things which make up the conditions and culture of the workplace.

      Time management: The planning, structuring, monitoring, and adjustment of activities to environmental conditions in a given time frame.

      Self management: The personal application of behavior change tactics that produce a desired change in behavior (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).

      Work culture: Shared beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and values which influence people in their workplace.


Closing Remarks


Professional development is what ATDNM is all about, and there are so many wonderful opportunities with ATD to learn about leadership development, among so many other areas. I encourage professionals in learning and development, organizational development, and human resources to take a peek at the suggested readings, and learn about simple ways to leverage the power of behavioral science for developing leaders and systems across all organizational levels for creating happy and thriving workplaces for all employees. By now, you may be finishing up your coffee or tea and perhaps our talk has sparked some ideas for which you can take back to your workplace and embark upon an initiative that is meaningful for you and your team. Thanks for joining me!


ATD Leadership Courses


Leadership Development Courses with ATD


Suggested Readings

Bringing out the Best in People by Aubrey Daniels


Measure of a Leader by Aubrey Daniels and James Daniels


The Work Revolution by Julie Clow



     Clow, J. (2012). The work revolution: freedom and excellence for all. Wiley.

    Cooper, J. O., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (Second Edition). Pearson/Merrill-Prentice Hall.

    Daniels, A. C., & Daniels, J. E. (2007). Measure of a leader: the legendary leadership formula for producing exceptional performers and outstanding results. McGraw-Hill.

     Malott, M. E. (2003). Paradox of organizational change: engineering organizations with behavioral systems analysis. Context Press.



 About the Author...

Carly Chivers, MS, BCBA


Carly is an Operations Specialist with the University of New Mexico’s ECHO Institute. She began her career applying behavioral science to help individuals with developmental disabilities. She practiced in the field of behavior analysis for 13 years. She earned a master’s degree in psychology and became a Board Certified Behavior Analyst in 2014. Carly shifted her practice area to organizational behavior management (OBM) in early 2020, applying behavioral science to the workplace. Since she entered the workforce, she has worked in clinical practice, training, professional development, non-profit management, performance improvement, behavioral systems analysis, and organizational development. She served as President for the New Mexico Association for Behavior Analysis (NMABA) from 2017-2019.


Carly is a member of a handful of professional associations including The OBM Network, Association for Professional Behavior Analysts, and Association for Talent Development New Mexico Chapter. Carly volunteers with several organizations that collaborate in efforts to dismantle systems of racism and oppression, using her strengths in OBM to help in the efforts. Her core values are health and wellness for all, empathy, and impact. She enjoys creative writing, adventures with her husband, family and friends, yoga for exercise and stress management, and a bit of baking and reading on the weekends.



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