1000 word essay that describes your understanding of the article by Dr. Clawson. What are the highlights of this article? What will you take away from this? on a PESONAL Level? on a Business Level? More information about this article is available on line, so do some research. You can use the Text book as a second sources. 1. What key points you are taking away form this article, 2. How will you apply this learning (a) in your professional life and (b) personal life.
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A LEADER’S GUIDE TO WHY PEOPLE BEHAVE THE WAY THEY DO
To be autonomous means to act in accord with one’s self—it means feeling free and
volitional in one’s actions. When autonomous, people are fully willing to do what
they are doing, and they embrace the activity with a sense of interest and
commitment. Their actions emanate from their true sense of self, so they are being
authentic. In contrast, to be controlled means to act because one is being pressured.
When controlled, people act without a sense of personal endorsement. Their
behavior is not an expression of the self, for the self has been subjugated to the
controls. In this condition, people can reasonably be described as alienated.
—Edward Deci, Why We Do What We Do
Leaders influence people. Unless leaders understand why people behave the way they do,
their efforts to influence others will have random, perhaps unpredictable, even alienating effects.
You might try to influence someone and get just the opposite effect that you expected. For instance,
perhaps you have been trying to get a subordinate to do something at work, and no matter what you
do, she just won’t respond. On the other hand, maybe your boss has been asking you to do
something, and you resist. If you’ve ever asked yourself as a leader or a colleague, “Now why did
he do that?” you’ve wrestled with this problem. At home, at work, or at play, you have no doubt
observed people doing things that were, to you, unexpected or unusual. You may have seen two
people in very similar situations respond in very different ways. All of these incidents raise the
question, for leaders, of why people behave the way they do. This is a very complex subject about
which volumes have been and continue to be written. This chapter will introduce some
fundamentals about what motivates people, suggest under what conditions they will give their best
efforts, and then offer a summary framework that has proven pragmatic and powerful for leaders in a
variety of situations.
Some people resist this conversation by saying that you are being asked to be psychologists
rather than leaders. There is a difference. Both leaders and psychologists have to know something
about human behavior, and both are encouraging change. Leaders who resist understanding human
behavior focus at a very superficial level and simply command, “Do this!” or “Do that!”—clearly a
Level One approach. At the other extreme, many psychologists and psychiatrists try to understand
the very building blocks of a person’s personality, delving into significant and perhaps distant
This technical note was adapted by Professor James G. Clawson from his earlier note, UVA-OB-0183. Copyright 2001
by the University of Virginia Darden School Foundation, Charlottesville, VA. All rights reserved. To order copies, send
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otherwise—without the permission of the Darden School Foundation. ◊
historical events. Our target lies in between. Effective leaders understand why the people they are
trying to influence behave the way they do. Since mere compliance with commands is no longer an
effective, competitive mind-set (getting workers to do grudgingly and “good enough” will no longer
set you apart from the competition), effective leaders’ mental models of leadership go beyond giving
orders and assuming compliance for monetary rewards. On the other hand, leaders are not trying
necessarily to understand where a person’s personality or psyche comes from, but they are trying to
understand what that person’s motivations are in the present. Ignorance of the fundamentals of
human behavior leaves one with a limited set of generic influence models that may or may not have
impact on any particular individual. Deeper understanding provides more options, gives one more
potential tools, and frankly, makes one a more powerful leader.
For the first nine months of existence, human fetuses are an integral part of another human
being. Whatever preliminary awareness there may be of life, it is enveloped entirely inside another.
When we are born, we begin a three to six month process of becoming simply, aware of our
individuality, that we are separate, that we are no longer totally encased in the identity of another
human being. As this emerging awareness dawns on us, at least five fundamental “questions” arise.
These are not conscious questions in the sense of our thinking about them, rather they represent
issues that must be resolved one way or another. Their answers begin to shape our sense of
individuality, our sense of our place in the world, and our fundamental stance in it. These questions
1. When I’m cold, am I made warm?
2. When I’m hungry, am I fed?
3. When I’m wet, am I made dry?
4. When I’m afraid, am I comforted?
5. When I’m alone, am I loved?
When these questions are answered affirmatively, we tend to feel (rather than think) that we
are cared for, that we have a place in the world, and that life, and more particularly, the key people
in it, are supportive, confirming, and comfortable. We begin to learn that while “we” are not “they,”
“they” are “good.” We begin to ascribe to the “object” of our attention, our parents, attributes of
caring, concern, and dependability which we generalize to other “objects” or people in life.1 When
these answers are answered in whole or in part negatively, we tend to develop different feelings, that
we are not cared for (as much as we want/need), that we may not have a place in the world (as much
as we want/need), and that life and “others” in it are not supportive, confirming or comfortable (as
much as we want/need). Of course, no parent is able to be there all the time. Sometimes when we
For more detail on object relations theory of human mental development see N. Gregory Hamilton, The Self and
the Ego in Psychotherapy (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc, 1996); and Jill Savege Scharff and David E. Scharff, The
Primer of Object Relations Theory (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc, 1995).
are cold, hungry, wet, afraid or alone, Mother does not come. And the uncertainty of this leads us to
begin to “question” the security of the world around us.
If the questions above are answered negatively too often, we begin to develop “holes” in our
personalities. By “holes” I mean uncertainties even fears about our place in the world. Sometimes
these are small holes, sometimes quite large. Studies of chimpanzees in France, for example,
showed that if a baby chimpanzee was left alone without motherly comfort, yet supplied with more
than enough shelter, warmth, light, food and water, the baby eventually would die. In humans, too
many negative responses to inchoate, but deeply felt, needs may lead children to a feeling of
uncertainty or even betrayal. The noted English psychologist, Melanie Klein, calls this the “good
breast/bad breast” phenomenon: part of the time I get what I want, part of the time, I don’t and that
makes me angry with the very person who bore me. It can become a psychological dilemma for a
person, especially if the negative responses outweigh the positive ones.
These “holes” in our personalities can be very influential in our lives. If they are large
enough, they can persist, perhaps even dominate our adult activities for decades, even our whole
lives. Let me give you an example. One day a student came to see me. She came in, shut the door,
sat down, and began sobbing. I said, “what’s the matter?” She said that she had just gotten the job
of her dreams, making more money than she thought she could make, with the very company she
had always wanted to work for. “Hmm,” I said, “what’s the problem?” She had called her mother.
She said that she reported her success to her mom, and that within fifteen seconds the conversation
had turned to her mother’s charity work, her latest accomplishments, what she was working on, how
many accolades she had received lately, and so on. Then, this student said, “You know, it’s been
that way my whole life. Every time I’ve tried to talk to her about me, it quickly turns to being about
This is an example of an apparent “emotional hole” in the mother’s psyche. Even in the face
of her own daughter’s milestone achievement, she was driven to shift the conversation to her own
long-since unfulfilled needs for attention and recognition. We might well expect that this mother,
when she was a child, did not get sufficient positive responses to the five fundamental questions
above. When she needed comforting, she didn’t get it. When she needed loving, she didn’t get
enough of it. Probably, her mom or dad rewarded her with some attention when she made some
achievement that pleased them. She learned that her checked-off-to-do list was more important to
them than who she was. With that hole inside her personality, she began searching for ways to “fill
it in” through achievements, trying to find ways to later on to get the love, affirmation, and
comforting that she did not get as a child. This meant that when she became a mother, her child
became another means of filling in those holes. Unwittingly, she “used” her infant to “love her” and
to affirm her importance. And in the process, the child, my student, did not get what she needed.
We can observe elsewhere in adult life the behavioral result of these “holes” developed in
infancy. When you meet someone at a cocktail party and the entire conversation revolves around
their life, interests, hobbies, and goals, you might begin to wonder if they aren’t trying to fill in a
hole, by now a habitual behavior, by keeping the spotlight of attention on themselves. Maybe you
have had situations like I’ve seen where you are in a conversation with a small group and another
person comes up, and that person somehow changes the topic of conversation (regardless of what the
group was talking about) to their own agenda. Why do people do this? Often it is because they did
not get what they needed as a small infant and unknowingly they are spending the rest of their lives
trying to fill in that gap, trying to get the attention and affirmation that they did not get as a child.
Melanie Klein2 and Alice Miller3 describe this “gift” that parents give to their children, the natural
conflicts, small or large, of going from being totally and completely cared for to a world in which
even those closest are inconsistent in their love and caring.
So my student’s mother, not getting what she wanted as a child, grows up, marries and has
children, including my student. Now, as her children are young, unknowingly, she seeks to affirm
her own identity in the world, to fill in these holes, and this effort spills over into her mothering.
Consequently, she may not give her children what they need, perhaps rather, seeking to get love and
affection from them (perhaps manifest in language like, “Don’t you love your Mother?” instead of
“Mommy loves you.”), and they, in turn, begin to develop holes because they are not getting what
they needed as infants. And so, a 30 year old woman, graduating from a well-known professional
school, getting the job she’s always dreamed of for more money than she’d ever hoped for, finds it
hollow, empty, and a cause for sobbing.
The problem is that we cannot fill in these holes later in life. The attempt to do so is an
unending source of frustration and emotional anguish. Miller makes this point as does Gail Sheehy4.
However many achievements we may attain, however much money we make, however many
buildings we may build, however many accolades and awards and prizes we may win, they will not
fill in these holes left by parents who could not give what we needed at the time of infancy. We can
recognize them, however, and in that recognition begin to make a “necessary passage” to let go of
the desire to fill the hole. We can grieve the fact, if necessary, that we didn’t get what we wanted
and/or needed, and move on by learning to accept ourselves and our right as human beings to take up
space in the world. In Klein’s terms, we have to come to terms with the “good breast/bad breast”
dilemma and reach a reparation of the conflict, acknowledging this reality, perhaps grieving at the
recognition, and then move on.
These fundamental five questions, however, imply a sixth question that lingers throughout
our lives: “how can I get other people to do what I want?” Depending on our developing personality
and its holism or “hole-ism”, we tend to develop strategies for influencing others. Perhaps we
learned early on that bullying worked most of the time. Perhaps we learned that pretending to be
pitiful elicited the results we hoped for. Perhaps we learned that by being the “best” at anything
would get us the adoration we craved internally. These and other strategies all have pros and cons
associated with them. But these learned strategies for influencing others are not the end of the story.
Melanie Klein, Love, Hate and Reparation (New York: Norton, 1964).
Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child (New York: Basic Books, 1997).
Gail Sheehy, Necessary Passages (New York: Bantam, 1984).
Our genetic endowment
The object relations theorists and child psychologists represented above present a largely
“nurture” view, namely that people are born with a blank slate upon which the tendencies of their
lives are written by parents, friends, and other forces around them. Yet any parent will tell you that
children have innate and unique tendencies. Clearly we have inherited a variety of characteristics
from our parents. These include not only physical characteristics like eye and hair color, metabolism
and body shape, but also bio-chemical balances and emotional tendencies as well as more
fundamental species-specific instincts or drives like breathing, eating and drinking, reproducing, and
socializing. Nigel Nicholson at the London Business School makes a case that many aspects of our
human behavior, including the seemingly universal tendency to create hierarchies, is an inherited
trait that is “hard wired” into our DNA strings.5 As we have recently mapped the human genome
and continue research on the impact of genes on our behavior, we will learn more about the
proportion of our behavior that is “pre-determined” by our genetic endowments. It’s a difficult and
interesting question. It may be, for example, that we can no more “teach” a hard-nosed, autocratic
leader to be kind and gentle than we can “teach” a person not to be allergic. Leaders are constantly
faced with the questions, “To what degree can people change? Will they follow my leadership?” If
people cannot change, then leadership has no future. Most leaders in history particularly business
leaders, I assert, have been Level One leaders that targeted human behavior only. If we are to
understand the nature of leadership and its ability to impact humans, we must understand the
relationship between our genetic tendencies and our nurtured view of the world. And as we grow
and age, the interplay between our genetic endowment and our emerging personality traits begins to
Solidifying the tendencies
While much of the “drama” as Alice Miller calls it described above takes place in the first
three months to three years of life, the early tendencies, some say, tend to gel or “set” sometime in
the first decade of life. Morris Massey6 hypothesized that “what you were when you were ten years
old” pretty much determined the basic values of your life that would shape your behavior. By then,
the basic answers to the five questions above have been repeated SO many times that one has come
to understand the world in terms of those answers. A personal example may help to explain. My
father grew up in the great depression in the 1930’s. His family grew vegetables in a small plot of
vacant ground to have food to eat. Later in life, though, he made a small fortune building large
motor hotels out west in Idaho. When we would go to visit him as adults, his idea of taking us out to
dinner was “all you can eat for $4.99.” Even though he enough to eat at any restaurant in the city
without blinking an eye, he could not let go of this “core value” imbued upon his personality in those
early formative years. Perhaps you have observed this kind of behavior in your own extended
family where a person hangs on to values that seem to have been “imprinted” about age ten or earlier
yet no longer seem relevant to the present situation.
Nigel Nicholson, “How Hardwired is Human Behavior?” Harvard Business Review (July-August, 1998): 135
(Reprint 98406). See also, Executive Instinct (New York: Crown Business, 2000).
Morris Massey, The People Puzzle (Reston, VA: Reston, 1979).
This same phenomenon is commonly portrayed in the popular press by references to
Generation This or Generation That (Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y, etc.) The
hypothesis is that the current generation (however difficult it is to define when one begins and
another ends) has some common core tendencies that we, business and political leaders, should be
aware of. To the extent that broad societal influences can
imprint themselves on young, (about ten years old)
impressionable minds, there may be some truth to these There are ways that every human is
portrayals. This raises the question of how, if at all, can we like every other human and ways
begin to “see” categories of humans and how they might be that every human is unlike every
influenced by leadership. When we think about why people other human.
behave the way they do, we might note at least seven levels
of similarity and dissimilarity.
1. Humanity. There are some universally human characteristics. In addition to our DNA,
our bodily shapes, and the fundamentals of breathing, drinking, eating, and reproducing,
(all very strong instincts by the way), there are other characteristics that seem to mark all
people: humor, smiling, laughing, socializing, playing, and so on. William Glasser
postulated that we all have five basic needs: survival, love and inclusion, power, freedom
2. Regional culture. There are ways that Scandinavians, for instance, are different from
Norther Europeans in predictable patterns, and ways that Latin Americans are different
from North Americans.
3. National Culture. In addition, people from similar “nations” have learned over the years
to behave in some similar ways. Norwegians do things one way while Swedes have
chosen another; Mexicans can be differentiated clearly from Colombians in some ways.
4. Sub-National Culture. Inside of most nations there are regional units of similarity that
differentiate from other sub-national regions. In the U.S., for example, Southerners do
things differently than Northerners or Westerners, for example.
5. Organizational Culture. Corporations also develop cultures. The predictable ways that
employees of one company behave can often be contrasted with the predictable ways that
employees of other companies behave.
6. Family Culture: Regardless of where you live, your behavior is surely influenced by
your family upbringing and principles. Some people litter while others don’t, for
example, largely based on their familial training.
William Glasser, Choice Theory (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).
7. Individuality. We know from studies of twins, that even with the same genetic
endowment and environmental upbringing, people will vary, …
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