How often do we as Product Managers complain that we’re constantly bombarded with all sorts of distractions as we try to do our jobs on a daily basis? What if I told you that there’s one clever trick that you can use to minimize those disruptions and secure more time to focus on doing your job how you want, when you want?
It’s called “operant conditioning”, and the fact is you’re already doing it — though you’re probably doing it wrong and actually increasing the distractions you’re exposed to, rather than minimizing them.
Operant conditioning is a process through which we reinforce others’ behaviors through either the application of rewards or punishments, or by removing a positive or negative stimulus. In the classic mind-reading scene in Ghostbusters, Venkman is trying to use operant conditioning to stimulate psychic abilities — and while you obviously can’t rig up a Taser to shock anyone who comes within five feet of your desk, you can leverage the principles of operant conditioning to reduce distractions and disruptions.
For example, if you drop everything and immediately start talking to anyone who comes over to your desk, you’re modeling and reinforcing that behavior — and everyone around you can observe that they are rewarded by stopping you at your desk, without regard to what you may be doing. Similarly, if you let emails go unanswered, or never answer the phone at your desk, you’re punishing people who are using those methods to try to communicate with you.
However, rather than letting other people dictate the terms of engagement, you have the power to alter their approach and behavior by doing the following:
- Pick the least disruptive form of communication that you can handle on a consistent basis;
- When someone uses a sub-optimal form of communication, and the need is not urgent, redirect them politely to that previously-identified method of communication.
- Ensure that you follow up through the requested method quickly and as fully as you would have in the disruptive form.
“Sorry, I’m really busy right now – could you put that into an email and I’ll reply as soon as I can?”
After several redirected interactions, which are rewarded by a quick and complete response to their question, issue, or concern, you’ll see that the number of people who come to your desk to ask you a question will reduce, and that those who do come to your desk will actually have issues or concerns that do need to be addressed with more immediacy.
There’s also another side-effect that this can cause – based on the psychological principle of modeling. When we see someone who is rewarded for a particular behavior, we will tend to mimic that behavior in order to be rewarded ourselves. One doesn’t need to be the object of operant conditioning to be affected by it — merely observing the impact of such conditioning can often be sufficient to alter our behavior.
Assuming that you apply this trick correctly and consistently, you’re going to trigger modeling behavior in two different ways: (1) people will see that others are punished for unnecessarily interrupting you, thus being less likely to engage in disruptive activities themselves; and (2) people will see that you are rewarded for your behavior by encountering fewer distractions, and are likely to follow your lead and direct people engaging in disruptive behaviors toward less disruptive methods of communication. By altering your behavior, and changing the behaviors of others, you can actually affect the entire culture of your organization.
And who says psychology is boring?