Positioning Systems - Small Business Coaching



Positioning Systems Blog

OOPS - Contingency Shaped Or Rule Governed Behavior


The biggest problem with behavior in our organizations is it’s often difficult to discern the cause-and-effect relationships that make behavior occur as it does. The most important thing an executive in any organization should know is how to change behavior at the individual, group and national levels. In fact this is rarely if ever taught, let alone understood. 

Positive reinforcement is the most powerful interpersonal concept known and it is also the most misunderstood and misused.   It is said to “Always be positive!” Daniels in Oops – 13 Management Practices That Waste Time and Money [and what to do instead]  suggests it is the worst advice you could ever give or get because if you are positive at the wrong time you are very likely to get more of the wrong behavior. For example Terrorism is fueled by positive reinforcement. Think about it, why does a particular group want to be tied to a bombing if it doesn’t fuel their recruiting and increase their funding? There are countless examples of the use of positive reinforcement to get the wrong results. Behavior can be contingency-shaped or rule-governed. 

Contingency shaped means that the person learns from direct experience with the consequences of his or her actions.  [Touching a hot stove is an example of contingency shaped behavior.]

Rule governed behavior means that the person learns indirectly, without direct contact with the consequences. The person does not need to experience the consequence directly but learns by reading or learning from others. [If someone tells you a vending machine is broken, or if there’s a sign on it and you don’t put your money in that’s rule governed behavior. On the other hand if you go ahead and put your money in and lose it that’s contingency based.]

Rule governed behavior is considerably more efficient than contingency shaped behavior. Behavior changes more quickly. Organizations that know how to establish effective rules are in a more competitive position than those that don’t.   In a lot of our companies, the problem with rules governed approach is very little attention is paid to making sure that the stated or implied consequences of following the rules is consistent enough to maintain their integrity. It’s like the speed limit signs. They imply that the rule for driving at speeds above the limit will result in speeding tickets, yet few drivers get tickets so the speeding signs are largely ignored. 

Behavior is a function of consequences. Daniel’s points out that science teaches us there are four types of behavioral consequences. Here are some things we know with a high degree of certainty how they affect behavior:

  • Two types of consequences, positive and negative reinforcement, increase existing behaviors and can be used to teach new ones.
  • Positive reinforcement produces higher rates of behavior than negative reinforcement
  • A small immediate consequence has more impact on behavior than a large, future, and uncertain one.
  • Behavior that occurs without reinforcement is weakened and will eventually stop.
  • Two types of consequences, punishment and penalty stop existing behaviors. They don’t increase behavior, and they teach no new ones.
  • Behavior that is stopped by punishment and penalty will reoccur when the threat of punish- ment or penalty is removed or is remote.

Take some time to study these. Does it indicate to you why if you’ve been punishing or penalizing someone for their behavior that you need to be permanently consistent administering it in order to get it to stop? This is probably the best example of why a three strike rule is necessary. We’ll look at using these behavior understandings to establish what we need to do to make behavior work next blog. 

Need help implementing these ideas?

Positioning Systems helps business owners and entrepreneurs transform their business.   We provide the tools and coaching to help you take control of your business -- rather then having your business control you.