In high school and college, you probably had to suffer through general education courses. And while you might have thought your time spent in Psychology 101 would never pay off in the “real world,” the basic principles of psychology (unlike calculus) actually play a large role in running a business. If you snoozed through lecture or blew off studying, you might want to revisit a few of the basics to manage your team more effectively.
The biggest loss for leaders who skipped out on Psych 101 is understanding human motivation at its core. These fundamentals are critical to developing and sustaining engagement, which increases productivity and improves employee retention.
In a pyramid of human needs, Maslow’s Hierarchy states that once basic needs are met (safety, food and shelter), motivation becomes a matter of engaging with a person’s social and psychological needs. Today, higher education is common, and most people with full-time jobs are having their basic needs met. This means they won’t feel satisfied working solely for a paycheck—they want jobs that address needs at the top of the pyramid. This can mean different things to different people, but the best way to help your employees move toward self-actualization is by challenging them with work they find meaningful.
Ivan Pavlov is famous for his work in conditioning—how our minds connect an action with an outcome through behavioral triggers. Pavlov conducted a well-known experiment in which he rang a bell when he fed his dog. Over time, the dog was conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell. It sounds crass, but this is how reward systems work in organizations as well. Your employees will know how to act when they know which behaviors are associated with positive outcomes. If an employee is going to give it her all, she needs to know that there are favorable results on the other end, even if it's just a simple acknowledgement of her work.
Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation
Any manager needs to be able to make a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation arises from outside the individual, while intrinsic motivation emerges from within. Working hard to earn a monetary bonus, for instance, is extrinsic motivation. Diving into a project because you enjoy the subject matter speaks to intrinsic motivation. As a leader, you should understand that extrinsic motivation works in the short term, but sustaining employee engagement over time requires work that motivates from within. You need to inspire your workers over the long haul, or your business will suffer from their loss of interest.
Understanding Potential Management Hazards
Basic psychology can also help shine a light on some common mistakes managers make:
Mirror Image Fallacy
This is assuming other people are just like you, that they want what you want, think how you think and value what you value. Some managers crave public praise, so they assume public acknowledgement is a great motivator. But they may have employees who hate this type of recognition; for them, it would be a deterrent. Take time to learn what each person on your team values, and tailor incentives so they're most meaningful for each individual.
Fundamental Attribution Error
This error arises from explaining others’ actions with internal characteristics, rather than external circumstances. I was notably guilty of this while working with one particular client. Project deadlines and expectations shifted, communication was spotty and the scope was ambiguous. I automatically assumed this was due to innate qualities of the company: It must foster a laid-back work style, and that’s just how their people do things. I later learned that they were at a particularly unsteady time as a company, and the tumultuous environment was affecting their work methods. After I better understood their situation, working with them was less frustrating and more productive.
We are each unique, but there are basic principles of psychology that apply to us all. So take this refresher course in Psych 101 seriously—if you didn’t pay attention the first time, your management skills could be falling short of their potential.
Chris Cancialosi, Ph.D., is Managing Partner and Founder of gothamCulture, is a recognized expert in the field of leader and organizational development with particular focus on the leader’s role in shaping high-performing culture. He is also a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs.
Read more articles on employee management.