A Few Good Women

I wrote this as the Pentagon released its decision to allow women to participate in combat operations, opening a host of new opportunities, and dangers, for half of America’s population. One issue for all combat troops is whether they are physically up to the task before them. Each branch has vowed that men and women will be held to the same high standards of physical fitness before receiving the green light for assignment to combat units. In a recent interview with the NY Times, a woman Marine officer commented as follows on the requirements for the number of required dead pull ups required of women Marines: “I think the test should be the same as the men … People train to what they’re tested on.”

It was the last sentence that made my behaviorist ears perk up. She is saying that if you want behavior, put contingencies in place. I agree with this statement, to a point, anyway. Behaviorism is famous for its optimism about human capacities, an optimism that I share. Many of our folk sayings follow this in principle: “you never know until you try,” and “nothing ventured nothing gained.”  Both reflect the spirit if not the letter of what the officer was saying. We have no idea what people are capable of until we metaphorically hold their feet to the fire by requiring more than they may think they are capable of giving. And it often works out that when you impose such contingencies, you do get much greater performance than one might otherwise have expected. Often, but not always.

And for the “but” part I use myself as the example. I love to run and am an experienced runner and racer. BUT, no matter what contingencies you might put in place I am not likely to break a 5-minute mile. Ever. A combination of body engineering (not enough fast-twitch fibers in my legs) and age (never mind how old, exactly) are my (obvious) limitations. BUT, we don’t know what I could do with a proper training program and a world-class coach, certainly better than I am doing now.

As managers of people, it is hard to know when we have bumped into the equivalent of my low fast-twitch fiber count when laying out expectancies with employees. It is true that you never know if something will work or not until you have tried it. In the case of women Marines doing 20 dead pull ups like the men, it is an empirical question to be determined. Rest assured that men or women who can meet this standard get there through (a) small steps and (b) lots of practice.

So, here are the bottom lines to our woman officer’s comments:

(1) We have to be realistic in setting achievable goals. The goals have to be a stretch to attain growth and change, but they have to be reachable by the individuals for whom they are intended. Many organizations use something called “stretch goals,” whereby a person or group is told to increase their performance/output/productivity by some percentage or target. Thereafter, for example, the next year, they are expected to continue the increase based on somebody’s idea of an outcome. But that idea of an outcome doesn’t take into account how the individuals who are responsible for attaining the increase are to achieve these increasing goals. So, they often end up being la-la-land pie-in-the- sky smoke-and-mirror stuff that may sound good in the boardroom but put undue pressure on individual performers without giving them the tools they must have to make their individual contributions to the target. This is NOT what I am talking about when I say setting realistic goals.    

(2) Change is most likely to occur through a series of step-like changes in a process called shaping of targeted behavior. If a pigeon is working happily away at 25 pecks on a key to obtain 3 seconds access to a food hopper, we can easily get her to make 250 responses for the same amount of reward. If we increase the requirement abruptly, though, all is lost. The pigeon just quits working. Increase it gradually over several weeks and you can turn the pigeon into a super-responder!

(3) The way to get better at anything is to practice, but not just doing the same thing over and over. Psychologist Anders Ericsson has shown that people get better when they practice at the cusp between what they are doing and the next level, always pushing and being pushed (here is where good coaching comes into play) to outperform their previous efforts-to get better. Simple repetition at a comfortable level won’t get you 20 dead pull-ups, nor will it improve sales or customer service.

In the end, we don’t begin to know the limits of human capabilities. Nor do we need to either know them or assume what they might be. A better way is to set realistic but not comfortable goals and then, through shaping, help people develop the skills they need to achieve these goals. 

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.