5 ways to support work-force science to engage and change behavior

by | Apr 30, 2013 | Blog | 2 comments


Thanks to the emerging field of work-force science, many work-force myths are starting to shatter.

Remember these statements, which have been conventional wisdom for some of us?

Nice guys finish last….Extroverts make the best salespeople….Compromises turn horses into camels made by committees.

Now with breakthroughs in technology and neuroscience combined with new research in the social sciences, we’re learning new truths, many counterintuitive.

For example, Adam Grant, the award-winning organizational psychology researcher, Wharton’s highest-rated professor and now author of the new best-seller Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, has shown which type of interactions with others create more value in today’s more connected work world.

In particular, those who operate as “givers” and contribute to others without expecting anything in return achieve extraordinary results for them and their colleagues.

Also, he’s shown that ambiverts, whose style includes both extrovert and introvert tendencies, make better salespeople than extroverts.

Paul C. Nutt, the Ohio State business school professor emeritus who studied aspects of organizational decision-making and decisions most of his career, has shown that “bargaining”—that is, the art of compromise—always improves the success of the decision when it’s used. (By the way, his research showed that top-down decisions were more common seven to one than group decisions.)

Yet, the minority who included colleagues and subordinates in the decision-making process and incorporated their comments along the way (Yes, they compromised.) enjoyed another benefit.

The leaders who involved others experienced a faster and easier implementation. Because these leaders already had buy-in, they were able to avoid foot-dragging along the implementation path, as the Heath Brothers explained in their new best-seller, Decisive: How To Make Better Choices in Life and Work.

The implications for those of us who work in organizations are huge, especially when we’re implementing initiatives that require people to act in new ways. 

We’re finally able to start closing the disconnect between what science knows and what business does—as best-selling author Dan Pink colloquially describes it.

For too long, we’ve acted with just our guts, not taking the time, energy or resources to apply or research the science.

Now we can tap into evidence-based management, ignoring the science at our peril.

Who knows yet if it will change organizations the way the evidence-based medicine has transformed health care; however, we can be hopeful.

Those of us who work in change management need to be on-the-job activists for the work-force science movement because it holds so much promise for improving the quality of our work and life inside organizations.  

What does it mean to be an activist?  

1. Open our minds to science. Understand what the scientific literature and now Big Data is telling us, and how it can apply to the work inside our organization. And be willing to find out more through measurement and experimentation.

2. Focus on outcomes. Before we start any change work, know what our customers—our leaders—want to achieve, including the action and behavior change needed and from whom.  We need to start with the end in sight. Is the goal adopting new technology? Selling a new product? Switching to a new hiring process?

3. Measure. Do baseline measures when we start projects, and do pulse checks along the way. This includes conducting fast, crummy little tests and then refining our practices based on what we’ve learned. We want to support “leadership by experiment” as Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit has named it.

4. Base our actions in science. Take actions that are based in science, not just our guts. If leaders and others want to do differently, explain the science to them. And follow the science and our conscious.

 5. Keep in mind that we’re activists, not purists. We need to focus and contribute what’s interesting and useful about scientific findings, not just what’s interesting. Change management is not a goal in itself; instead, change management is a practice to enable organizations to achieve specific goals, ideally around changes in behavior to achieve a specific change that the organization needs to accomplish.

As a college work/study research assistant to one of the first social psychologists who studied happiness, I’ve been fascinated by the gap between scientific knowledge and workplace practices for many years.

So the new work-force science movement is especially exciting, especially as explained in the recent New York Times article, Big Data, Trying to Build Better Workers.

And I gladly jumped into a recent discussion of the Organizational Change Practitioners LinkedIn Group about whether organizational change management is accessible to science.

As the initiator of the discussion summarized, two camps emerged: 1) those who feel change management does not easily lend itself to science because of the human factors and the unique organizational situations and 2) those who feel science can be helpful.

Being in the science camp, I hope that through science and additional measurement we’ll all learn better ways to make change easier for us all.

What’s your take on science in the work force?


  1. John Barbuto

    Nicely done Liz! Very readable. Very practical. I particularly like the comment “Keep in mind that we’re activists, not purists”. Yes, that says a lot.

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Thank you so much! I especially appreciate the comment coming from you as a neurologist!

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