Bossmanship and Pavlov’s Dogs

Most of us have heard about a phenomenon we learned in our Intro to Psych course called  “Classical Conditioning.” Ivan Pavlov illustrated that when he paired the presentation of food (stimulus 1) with the sound of a bell (stimulus 2), dogs would eventually salivate at the sound of the bell even when food was not present. They also salivated at the very sight of the helper who brought the food to them. Classical conditioning is the reason your cat comes running every time he hears the can opener and why your kids come alive when they see the sign of the golden arches… even when it’s just a picture of the golden arches. 

Now if you’re like most people, you’ve been having daily contact with significant people without thought of the impact of each interaction. But did you know that with every interaction we are conditioning others to respond to us in a certain way? There are numerous and nefarious ways you can use classical conditioning to influence your relationships at work and at home, but for this brief article we will focus on your relationship with your boss. 

When you look back at the last five or six interactions with your boss can you say that they were likely to elicit a positive conditioned response? That is, did you pair your presence (stimulus 1) with a positive reinforcer (stimulus 2)?   Did you show up with a solution, an idea, an insight, key information, or good news of some kind, or did you come with a problem, a complaint, an excuse, a delay, or more work for the boss?

It goes without saying that sometimes you must complain or present a problem, and the boss needs to know when a project is going sideways. However a complainer brings a problem and dumps it, while a true leader brings the same problem along with viable options. It takes a little extra effort, but it’s smart to research potential solutions before talking with the boss. So repeat after me, “I will never again bring a problem to my boss without possible solutions that I am ready to lead”. 

Now go on and put on that cape, because in no time flat your boss will associate your presence with rescue, remedy, and results. It’s science. Soon, the very sight of you will elicit the visceral response of the kind that Pavlov celebrated. I don’t have to tell you, that translates into rapid vertical trajectory. 

Dr. Theresa Miller