The next few articles of our series on Leadership in the 21st Century will discuss the five Foundational Principles of the LEAD Program at the Institute for Postindustrial Leadership.

Kurt Lewin was one of the first psychologists to propose that human behavior was the product of interactions between a person’s internal predispositions (nature) and their life experiences (nurture). This conception was originally presented by Lewin in the form of the mathematical equation B = f (P,E) known as Lewin’s Equation for behavior. It states that behavior is a function (f) of the person (P) interacting with their environment (E) to create a dynamic life space. Because of its prominence as a classical socio-psychological construct, and because of its simple elegance, it influences the first of the five Foundational Principles of the LEAD Program. In LEAD, we represent the formula as B = f (P x E) to emphasize the importance of the interaction effect between the P and E, and to stipulate that there can be no person without an environment and vice versa. Simply stated, human behavior is a function of the person interacting with their environment.

Imagine coming home to find one of your favorite houseplants looking poorly. What do you do to bring the houseplant back to life? When diagnosing this situation most people focus their attention on the houseplant’s environment – the mineral content of the soil, the amount of water, the room temperature or the size of the container. The plant itself may require attention as well, such as feeding, removing mites and trimming away dead leaves.

In a similar fashion, understanding the work environment facilitates the process of explaining, predicting, maintaining and changing behavior in an organizational setting. As an example: many managers observe their employees’ behavior and claim that they are not motivated. The strongest motivators are intrinsic; examples include autonomy, meaningfulness of work and task significance. The problem is that these managers go to the "default" setting of attributing behavior directly to the person, B = f (P), ignoring the influence and impact of the environment, B = f (E). Ignoring the environment and assigning blame solely to employee traits, personality or personal attributes and abilities is referred to as the “fundamental attribution error.” This is tantamount to focusing attention on the houseplant – blaming it for its poor health – and ignoring the houseplant’s environment.

Almost every manager or leader we ask, “Do you want to motivate your people?” responds with an enthusiastic, “Yes.” But we posit that you cannot motivate another person. When one person tries to “motivate” another, they are only able to provide or promise external satisfiers. External satisfiers result in movement, not motivation. Motivation is long term, self-generated “voluntary behavior.” Trying to motivate employees is a waste of time. In a supportive and challenging environment, people motivate themselves.

The organizational environment is dynamic and consists of both a physical dimension and stronger psychological dimension with factors and forces that influence behavior. It is important to create the right environment. Individuals subjected to either a negative or positive environment naturally respond to the forces operating in the environment. Simultaneously, employees influence their environment. Interestingly, it is easier to see how we impact our environment than it is to see how our environment impacts us.

A negative environment contains, contributes to or creates elements and conditions that interfere with, inhibit or result in the reduction or extinction of intrinsic motivation – meaningfulness in work, self-determination, value congruence, learning and growth. In contrast, a positive environment is one in which trust and respect flourish, commitment and achievement are made possible, and postindustrial leadership is made inevitable. Managers/leaders must learn to diagnose the environment, analyze cause and effect relationships and design interventions to create supportive and challenging environments.

This principle reminds us to step back when observing a person’s behavior to expand our view and become aware of the physical and psychological environment in which the behavior occurs. It helps us understand the effectiveness and efficiency of designing a healthy and positive work environment. When the foundational principle B = f (P x E) is internalized, a manager/leader will never see behavior the same way. One cannot fully understand behavior without an understanding of its antecedents, determinants and consequences.

B = f (P x E) is inextricably interwoven with the other four foundational principles. It “opens” our minds, so we are more open to the other principles. Just like a houseplant receiving too much water, in a negative environment, even the principles based on profound knowledge won’t work.

Our sixth article will present and discuss the second foundational principle of LEAD which is based on systems thinking: I → P → O.

This is the fifth article in a series by Terry and Matt. They are co-founders and directors of the Institute for Postindustrial Leadership at the University of Indianapolis. For more information about the Institute, go to: www.uindy.edu/postindustrial or email Terry and Matt at postindustrialinstitute@uindy.edu.

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