Situational Behavior

I had to read a research paper for class the other day, and it presented an interesting question: how does the presence of others influence how well you perform a task?

Situational Behavior Experiment

The experiment was pretty neat. The scientist stuck a cockroach in a clear box and observed how quickly the cockroach was able to reach the end of a tunnel. The scientist then added stadium style seating to this box where a whole bunch of other cockroaches could “observe” the main cockroach in the box running towards the end of the tunnel. This was meant to study the effect of the presence of others on task performance. The crazy part is that the cockroaches being observed by peers actually ran faster than cockroaches that weren’t being observed. Describing the other experiments is outside the scope of this post, but it is well worth a read if you have time. I’ll share the link here for those interested in learning more – study on situational behavior.

The results

So what did the study actually find? Based on these results, Zjoncs, the scientist who led the investigation developed a theory called social facilitation, which implies that people have a tendency to do better on tasks that they are already good at doing when in the presence of other people.

This theory has been found applicable to all facets of everyday life. For example:

  • Public speaking – you perform better in front of audience if a speech is well learned, and worse in front of an audience if the speech is poorly learned.
  • Creativity – you perform better with others present if the task is easy; you perform worse if the task is difficult.
  • Athletic performance – as we have all observed in professional sports, the all-star “experts” always seem to perform better with an audience. However if you made someone like me go in front of thousands of people and try to complete a play, I would almost certainly fail.
  • Stereotyping and prejudice – this one is interesting. People are actually more likely to apply well-learned stereotypes in the presence of others, and less likely to apply poorly-learned stereotypes in the presence of others.

How can you apply situational behavior in real life?

After I read this study, my first though was how can I use this information to create situations where I can improve my own performance? Then as an almost immediate followup – I thought about how the best managers always seem to make others around them better, so how can I leverage this information to improve the performance of those around me?

Improving myself
In terms of improving myself, the most obvious way to apply this theory is to volunteer for tasks that I know I can do well. It will most likely lead to improved performance since I’ll have confidence in this specific ability. For tasks that I am not confident in, I should recognize the need for a disproportionate amount of practice before making any type of public demonstration.

Improving the team
In terms of improving a team – I think the most important takeaway is to assign the right person to the right role. A second application is in workplace design. A lot of startups advocate having open workplace designs rather than separate cubicles. Aside from improving communication flows, situational behavior implies that an open workplace can also improve performance of all workers simply through the presence of others. Lastly, depending on the problem and your team on hand, team leaders should be more critical of employing groups vs individuals for problem solving. A team of subject matter experts might be able to employ out of the box thinking and creativity to solve a specific problem they are already familiar with. However, a diverse group of individuals – no matter how skilled or experienced – won’t likely demonstrate a very creative solution if this is a task they are unfamiliar with.

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