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Dave Keats

Senior Design Engineer,

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Should corporations have "Behavioural Science" departments?

In Mr. Pink's talk, he makes two points that I believe are especially important. First, that monetary incentives are actually counterproductive when applied to tasks requiring cognitive abilities (studied and proven). And second, that science knows more than business is doing.

If both of these things are true, then why not bring behavioural science to businesses? Companies are already quite good at accessing the “hard sciences” via their employees – things like engineering, chemistry, physics, mathematics, etc. So, why not do the same thing with the “soft sciences” - psychology, sociology, and related sciences of human behaviour?

Since science knows more than business is doing, it appears that Human Resource departments are not filling the need for additional knowledge of human behaviour. Behavioural Science departments could provide companies with continued access to the “soft sciences” - and the associated benefits.

Such departments would certainly cost more. But, are they also worth more? There might be value in the ability to study employees' responses to corporate culture, etc., and make changes to benefit the company and the employees. This might more than pay for the cost the additional department.

Topics: science society
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  • Oct 13 2012: "In Mr. Pink's talk, he makes two points that I believe are especially important. First, that monetary incentives are actually counterproductive when applied to tasks requiring cognitive abilities (studied and proven)."

    Corporate executives and major shareholders know this already. The executives agree to monetary incentives because they profit directly, major shareholders (in countries where they have a voice) agree to them because of tournament theory. The entire republican party in the US uses tournament theory to captivate its followers, it's such a potent tool.

    "And second, that science knows more than business is doing."

    Let's hope it stays that way. Corporations using behavorial science for their ad campaigns and image building are admitting they resort to trickery because apparently their product doesn't speak for itself and if their product doesn't speak for itself I don't need it and would prefer not to be tricked into buying it anyway. People are terrified of governments using subliminal messaging and other trickery to influence the masses but somehow it's considered ok when a corporation does it, this I will never understand.
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      Oct 14 2012: Thanks for your comments, John. Admittedly, I'm not very familiar with tournament theory. I'll be sure to investigate that.

      Couldn't executives (and shareholders) profit even more if the employees in their departments contributed ideas that resulted in increased customer satisfaction and revenues?

      Although I didn't say so in my explanation, the other thing that motivated my question was Mr. Pink's reference to that (Australian?) company that introduced special days, during which employees had the opportunity to work on whatever they want - whether at work, or elsewhere. There were two conditions, though. Obviously, the work had to be relevant to the business, and, at the end of that 24 hour period, the employees had to present their ideas / proposals.

      The company benefited significantly from these days. First, the company gained either new, or improved products. And second, the employees were happier because they had increased autonomy, and could work on things in which they had the greatest interest / passion.

      Do you have any thoughts on this company's approach? If you're so inclined, I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on that.

      Thanks in advance.
      • Oct 14 2012: "Couldn't executives (and shareholders) profit even more if the employees in their departments contributed ideas that resulted in increased customer satisfaction and revenues?"

        The executives are definitely better off under the current system. As for the shareholders, well, they're hoping to harness tournament theory on top of all the other motivational methods, since tournament theory doesn't exclude those. I do not know whether tournament theory has an effect in real life (though I suspect it doesn't on most employees and the executives are just fooling the shareholders into giving them bigger paychecks).

        "Although I didn't say so in my explanation, the other thing that motivated my question was Mr. Pink's reference to that (Australian?) company that introduced special days, during which employees had the opportunity to work on whatever they want"

        I've heard of this a while ago, I'm sure it would help many businesses, but it doesn't exclude the use of tournament theory (the monetary incentives are only offered to the corporate top).

        The reasons monetary incentives are so common have to do with fundamental flaws in the human mind, flaws that behavorial science looks into but cannot do anything about as long as we have uneducated bozos (who don't know anything about behavorial science, IT, and other stuff that they really should know if they want to earn the respect of their employees) running businesses
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    Oct 13 2012: I don't think they need standing departments. I think they need to get up to speed on the subject.

    This can be accomplished in more efficient ways than having a standing department.
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      Oct 14 2012: Thanks for your comments, Fritzie.

      To be perfectly honest with you, that same thought crossed my mind as well. However, if most companies operate in the same way as those I've worked for, mangers / executives couldn't devote the time required to get up to speed. Partly because of other committments, and partly because they lacked any (formal) background in behavioural science. Perhaps your experience has been different from mine.

      Do you have any specific thoughts on the more efficient ways that you mentinoed? I'm not attacking your comment, I'm genuinely interested in more detail.

      Thanks in advance for any additinal thoughts that you can share.
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        Oct 14 2012: Many offices have occasional retreats or time set aside for trainings and professional development.

        Some places delegate staff to present things. Some screen videos and discuss them. Some invite a speaker.

        Some places occasionally distribute readings.

        I have worked in a variety of settings over the decades that have used such vehicles for keeping the professional staff up to date.
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        Oct 14 2012: What education more than reading the evidence is required?

        The current business paradigm is a slavery-based structure. For this reason, we have been dumbed-down by our educational systems. The two go together. If you haven't seen it already, I suggest that you watch the following TED talk.

        http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms.html
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          Oct 14 2012: Actually, I had not seen that particular TED talk. Thanks for that.
          However, even though the behavioural sciences might fall under the "intellectual pillar" that Ken describes, my position & question remain unchanged.

          Ken is recommending that our education system be revolutionized – in part, to mine the talents and intelligence of those that were previously marginalized. I posed my question about behavioural science departments because I'm wondering if corporations should be reformed / revolutionized for similar reasons. After all, corporations don't just employ people, they educate them as well. Much of my education took place once I started working.

          Training is great. But, if our corporations included people from the fields of behavioural science, neuroscience, psychology, etc., I think we would be making better use of humanity's diverse intelligence. Corporations may be more likely to redefine their cultures for the benefit of the employees and the corporation. In Dan Pink's TED talk, he references a company that has already done that. Clearly, companies are not predestined to continue along the "slavery based" path that you've described. Some may do so, but the best ones will not.

          "What education more than reading the evidence is required?"

          That appears to be a wild oversimplification of an entire field of study. One cannot reduce a branch of science to the mere review of evidence. If it were that simple, the issues raised by Dan Pink would have been addressed by corporations decades ago.

          There must be enormous amounts of "evidence" out there. Which evidence do you hold in the highest regard, and why? What would lead a layman (like me) to value some evidence over other evidence? Unless people have the education, experience, curiosity, genuine interest, and perhaps passion in the behavioural sciences - and the time to apply such things - we won't be able to understand and affect the required changes.