Like Ringing a Bell: How to Bring Out the Best in Employees

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First of two parts

To your employees, you are Pavlov’s Bell, for better or for worse.

I was reminded of this during a conference presentation. Two men in the audience, both senior level executives, made their presence known. One because his face was frozen in a dour, grouchy expression, and both men because of their cynical perspectives on issues we discussed.

You’re not this type of boss, are you?

You know the type. They’re the kind that embody the saying “They brighten a room … the moment they leave.

They’re the folks who can take a rollicking, possibility-filled discussion and grind it to a screeching halt with a sarcastic comment or their “That’ll never work…we tried that once in the 80’s” pessimism.

As I watched these two senior executives in action at my program, I thought “Boy, I’m glad I’m not one of THEIR employees…”

I imagined what it would be like to offer suggestions or voice my concerns to them. I imagined what a buzz kill it would be working with and for them day after day.

Bringing out the best in others

It got me to thinking of the principle I’m about to share with you, a principle I try to share with every manager I work with. And that is: “To Your Employees, You Are Pavlov’s Bell”

You remember Pavlov and his canine subjects? Because Pavlov rang a bell when he gave them food, the dogs associated the bell with food and began salivating simply at the sound of the bell.

Because of the phenomenon called Associative Learning – an automatic, unconscious learning process – the sound of the bell became associated with the positive emotions that getting fed triggered. Through repetition the feelings of eager anticipation became classically conditioned to the sound of the bell.

The same phenomenon of Associative Learning happens in everyday life, and it happens between you and your employees. If your interactions with others tend to elicit certain emotions in them on a consistent basis, after a while, just your presence, just your voice will elicit those same emotions.

Here’s the key point to consider: “The emotions you trigger depend on the dominant emotional themes of your interactions.”

Have you had a boss like this?

I remember experiencing this with a manager of mine when I worked for a national seminar company. The only time my colleagues and I heard from him was if he had a complaint or some bad news.

Commenting on his management style, one of my colleagues observed “You know, Greg would benefit from taking one of those management development seminars the company sells.”

It got to the point where just hearing a voice mail message from Greg would trigger instant dread and defensiveness.

“Now what’s wrong?” I would say to myself the moment his voice came on the line.

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Haven’t you had bosses who elicited that kind of response from you? Because they only interacted with you when they pointed out a mistake you made, gave you bad news, or took out their bad mood on you, just their presence or voicemail message triggered a negative emotional response in you.

To you, they had become a negative Pavlov Bell.

People who are positive Pavlov Bells

Conversely, don’t you know people who, just by their presence, make you feel better? Whether they’re uplifting and inspiring, or just a pleasure to be around, you instantly feel better when you’re around them. They are a Positive Pavlov Bell.

Managers who take time to encourage employees, to give positive feedback, express appreciation, show interest in employee ideas and input, and share exciting new developments; these managers become positive Pavlov Bells.

With managers who are Positive Pavlov Bells, employees are more likely to be in a positive emotional state when they interact with them.

Thus, these managers find it easier to give corrective feedback, get buy-in for new changes, and get employees to talk about difficult issues. Furthermore, their employees are more likely to exhibit high morale and to care about helping their company succeed.

Conversely, managers who are Negative Pavlov Bells are already “in the hole” before they even bring up a difficult issue. Before they’ve even opened their mouth, their mere presence has triggered a negative, distrustful, defensive, and/or resentful state in their employee… not exactly an emotional state conducive to productive outcomes.

Long term, these managers are also more likely to have workers who demonstrate negativity, low morale, and little interest in helping their company succeed.

Thus, supervisors and managers who are a Positive Pavlov Bells to their people have a far easier time managing and motivating employees. They also provide far greater value to their employer, because they’re more capable of bringing out the best in their employees.

Tomorrow in Part 2: 5 strategies to help make sure you are a Positive Pavlov’s Bell to others.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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1 Comment on “Like Ringing a Bell: How to Bring Out the Best in Employees

  1. I like the idea of considering what type of bell you are – we talk a lot about the power to choose your reaction (don’t be Pavlov’s dog!) but don’t often talk about ourselves as the stimulus. Interesting!

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