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How Independence and Leadership Relate in the Workplace
Deanna Charkewycz, Douglas Krukoff, Lindsay Neuberger, Connor Toole, Laura Zbehlik
The George Washington University
According to behaviorism, the personalities of great leaders are shaped by reinforcements in their environment. This proposal focuses on Winston Churchill’s personality development through the lens of B.F. Skinner’s behavioral theory. In Skinner’s theory of personality, the individual is passive and their personality is shaped through responses to reinforcements presented in their life. This theory is applied to Churchill to determine the dominant reinforcement factor in his life. It is proposed that research on this topic can be used to develop better hiring processes for businesses who wish to find employees with leadership abilities.
Keywords: Personality, Leadership, Independence, Behaviorism, Churchill
How Independence and Leadership Relate in the Workplace
Employers only have a short period of time to judge an individual’s personality during their hiring process. Our study explores Winston Churchill’s personality through B. F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism and we propose a method that may help employers positively reinforce employees for the benefit of those who are independent and take on leadership roles in the workplace. Our focus on independence and leadership stems from our focus on Winston Churchill and how radical behaviorism may have influenced his personality throughout his life.
Personality refers to the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that make up the character of a person and is influenced both psychologically and biologically. It is biological for human function is continual biochemical processes in the brain and throughout the body by the central and peripheral nervous systems. Personality is psychological for personality is not only displayed in an individual’s behaviors but in their feelings, beliefs, relationships, and other social interactions. For a characteristic to be considered a personality trait, it must be consistent and reflected in the individual’s thoughts and behavior across a variety of situations.
Personality described by Skinner is superfluous as he saw personality as intangible; it cannot be directly observed. B. F. Skinner theorized personality as a product of reinforcement, whether positive or negative and how the reinforcement influences one’s behavior through Ivan Pavlov’s earlier concept of operant conditioning. Reinforcement is defined as anything that increases the likelihood of a response, or the effect of an individual’s behavior determining the likelihood of the behavior being repeated.
Focusing on observable behavior, Skinner too was a learning theorist believing behavior was the result of learning, such a schoolkids learning right from wrong, and posited that an individual’s behavior and personality traits are shaped over the course of their life as they are continually required to respond to new situations.
In our study, we predict those with independence will be positively reinforced through the reward of taking initiative or being able to perform their job without supervision. Rewards for their behavior may include raises, bonuses, compliments or references for future job applications. Their leadership would be positively reinforced if they were given extra responsibilities, tasked with leading a team project, promoted.
We intend to find a relationship between independence and leadership in the workplace utilizing radical behaviorism. The results will be used to explain how employers can take advantage of radical behaviorism to predict job candidates’ leadership capability and to reinforce the behavior of present employees. In the next section radical behaviorism will be applied to Winston Churchill in supporting that benefits reinforcement can have on human capability with a focus on leadership and independence.
B.F. Skinner’s Behavioral Theory Applied to Churchill
The strong personality that Winston Churchill had is assessed through radical behaviorism which explains personality as the product of behavioral reinforcement via operant conditioning. Operant conditioning accounts for why a behavior may increase or decrease in an individual’s personality. A behavior is more likely to be repeated if the behavior is rewarded through positive reinforcement. If the consequences are negative or not valued by the individual, they are unlikely to repeat the behavior. This theory is often practiced to eliminate problematic behaviors by incorporating a system of rewards and punishments for behavior. Churchill was subjected to such systems throughout his life that shaped his behavior.
Winston Churchill was born two months premature on November 23, 1874 in Oxfordshire (International Churchill Society, 2017). His father, Randolph Churchill, was of the aristocracy and a politician. His mother, Jennie Jerome, was the daughter of an American millionaire. The family did not stay in Oxfordshire long. Randolph worked for Winston’s grandfather John Spencer-Churchill, who was promoted to Viceroy, moving the family to Dublin (International Churchill Society, 2017).
Previous research backs up the claim that a system of rewards and punishments can influence behavior. One example is a study performed by Deeber to examine how operant conditioning affects autobiographical memory retrieval. Specifically, they were looking to observe the effect of operant conditioning on traumatic memory retrieval. The study, and similar studies referenced in their publication, showed that individuals avoid the retrieval of specific memories that are traumatic and/or negative in nature because they are avoiding the associated emotionally painful consequences (Deeber et al, 2014). This study shows that operant conditioning can affect personality and shape behavior because individuals avoid engaging in behaviors that result in negative reinforcements, and increase behaviors that are positively reinforced.
The family stayed in Dublin for about four years. During this time, Winston was educated by a nanny named Elizabeth Everest. The two developed a close bond. When Churchill began attending boarding school after the family returned to Britain, he corresponded with Elizabeth until she died in 1895. Winston was the only member of the family to attend her funeral (International Churchill Society, 2017). Though Winston admired both of his parents and had wanted a close relationship, especially with his mother, he was conditioned to become closer with Elizabeth Everest.
Elizabeth Everest responded to him warmly while his father responded to him harshly with extreme disapproval and his mother tended not to respond at all (Churchill, 2017). These responses reinforced Churchill’s relationship with his nanny and lack of relationship with his parents. The reinforcement taught Churchill to become more independent and he contacted his parents less and less as his life progressed though that is not what he had wished for their relationship; later in life, Winston once commented that he and his father had “little contact”. His father’s death, around the same time as Elizabeth Everest’s death, was a hard blow on Churchill. Randolph died at the young age of 45, and suffered from dementia years before his death, leading Winston to believe he would die young as well.
Winston attended three schools during his childhood years and was known for being a bit of a problem child, as he had a rebellious and independent streak inside the classroom. The three schools he attended were St. George’s School, St. Brunswick School, and finally Harrow School where he joined the Rifle Corps. Winston’s instructors attempted to condition his behavior through the grades he received; Winston was noted for his excellence on the mathematics portion of his entrance exam to Harrow, and within his first year was recognized as one of the best students in his division in history. However, their attempts at conditioning failed and his academic performance was overall poor because Winston did not value his grades as much as his refusal to study the classics. Instead, Winston’s rebelliousness and independence was reinforced as he transferred schools instead of being forced to comply with assigned procedures.
After his time at Harrow, Winston applied three times to enroll in Royal Military College in Sandhurst. This high number of applications was due to his failing grades on the entrance exam. He applied for a place in the cavalry regiment, to the disappointment of his father, because the required academic grades were lower. He became a war correspondent on military campaigns in Cuba, India, Sudan, and South Africa (Nobel Media, 1953). In some places, he even participated in the conflicts as a combatant. Winston’s role as a potential leader was reinforced as he made a name for himself with his writings as a war correspondent (Nobel Media, 1953). The reward of becoming well-known and successful reinforced Churchill’s rebellious and independent streak and to behave as he saw fit despite the expectations of others, a pattern that continued throughout his life. Winston went into politics, like his father, as a member of the Conservative Party, which he left for the Liberal Party and then rejoined in 1924. Prior to being elected Prime Minister in 1940, Churchill held several political and military positions. Being elected by voters is a very clear example of operant conditioning, as a political candidate’s personality and leadership style are reinforced by the number of votes they receive.
As Prime Minister, Churchill refused to sign an armistice with Nazi Germany despite his originally pessimistic outlook on Britain’s hope of victory during the war. He was quoted saying, “you and I will be dead in three months’ time” to Hastings Ismay shortly after his election (Jenkins, pp. 616–46). Despite this, less than a week later Churchill gave his “finest hour” speech (Jenkins, pp. 616–46). This was only one of the many speeches Churchill gave that are credited with raising British morale during the war. Because he did not have much good news to give the British public in his speeches, he instead focused on emphasizing the potential dangers should British civilization fall to the Germans (Jenkins, pp. 616–46). Applying Skinner’s behavioral theory, the stimulus Churchill experienced was the threat of invasion by the Nazis and his response was giving speeches that emphasized the potential dangers rather than fabricating good news. His response/ behavior was reinforced when he was credited for the success of his speeches in boosting British morale, and he proceeded to give similar speeches in the time following.
However, there is an argument against applying Skinner’s behavioral theory to Churchill. In Churchill’s childhood, his parents did not encourage or reward his leadership behaviors. According to Skinner, this would have led Churchill to completely abandon his leadership behaviors at a young age. His continuation of leadership behaviors therefore must be attributed to reinforcement from his nanny, whom he was conditioned to be closer with than his parents, and reinforcement from the people of England in the form of votes during his political career.
Winston Churchill’s personality and unique independence drove him to become an influential leader of the 20th century. Churchill, as a case example, can help employers find strong potential leaders through Skinner’s behavioral theory. Operant conditioning, the intersection of B.F. Skinner’s behavioral theory and personality, helps to explain Churchill’s success. According to Skinner’s theory, Churchill’s personality is not an innate temperament, but an entity that was formed by environmental factors like a lack of intimacy with his parents as well as military experience. He was conditioned to show immense independence, therefore becoming a prominent leader. Churchill’s independent leadership style was positively reinforced by those around him with praise, and he quickly made a name for himself as an outstanding leader. The election of Churchill as Prime Minister and the increase of British morale during World War II reinforced Churchill’s dominant leadership style to a further extent as he became labeled as a historic world leader. Churchill’s development of his individuation through operant conditioning applies to employers seeking strong leadership ability.
The dominant factor of Churchill’s success as a world leader was his military experience and success as a war correspondent, which heavily reinforced his independence. The research article, “Personality Traits and Military Leadership,” supports the idea that Churchill was a successful leader due to his military experience (Johnson, 2009). Churchill was less neurotic, and the study supports the idea that leaders with lower neuroticism are more successful. The article also supports strong leaders as those more extraverted, open to experiences, and conscientious. These traits embody Winston Churchill, and embody independence. If employers are looking for candidates with strong leadership potential, they should be guided towards candidates that embody similar traits to demonstrate their leadership capability.
The research article titled, “Called and Formed: Personality Dimensions and Leadership Styles Among Catholic Deacons and Men in Formation” provides research on the leadership styles of Catholic deacons according to their personality. The article provides evidence that extraversion and openness to experience creates a stronger leadership style than demographics such as age or race. Churchill’s inspiring speeches, arguably what he is most known for, demonstrated an extraverted personality type as evidenced by his fearlessness and confidence in incentivizing the population to defend Britain from the Nazis. Furthermore, his choice to incentivize the population through rhetoric rather than focusing on the depressing reality is supported by Skinnerian research produced by Optiway Global. This organization views operant conditioning as stimulus-behavior-consequences-future behavior, and published research explicitly stating, “individuals will obtain performance if they get rewards” (Optiway Global, 2011). More simply, they believe behavior is a two-way street because others’ reactions to an individual’s behavior influences future behavior. In their findings, they suggest managers should encourage their employees’ positive behaviors and focus less on their behaviors that are harmful in the work environment (Optiway Global, 2011); Churchill chose to focus on the positives and less on the negatives when giving his speeches to rally the country.
A research article focuses on authentic leadership explores the empowerment of employees with a strong leader that shares personality traits such as openness (Guenter, 2017). Authentic leadership affects less proactive employees and empowers the employees to speak up more. This is applicable to the UK because not all citizens under Churchill had proactive personality types. More likely, people were afraid during World War II and unsure of how to proceed or pan for the future. Churchill’s authentic leadership was reinforced by the citizens due to their support of him during the difficult social factors of the time.
The overall message of Churchill’s speeches and civilian support of his leadership also supports the idea that Churchill’s leadership was perceived as authentic by the British civilian population. Komakhi studied the operant model of effective supervision, which is derived from Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. The goal of the model is to essentially identify behavior in leaders that motivates their employees/subordinates to perform their work most effectively (Komakhi, 1994). The author hypothesized two categories would affect leadership effectiveness.
Multiple studies were covered by this paper. Ten of the studies were conducted in the workplace, and the remaining three were conducted in the laboratory (total of thirteen studies). In Study 1, the researchers used their own Operant Supervision Taxonomy and Index (OSTI). This first study was used to determine the effectiveness of the OSTI in determining how well the operant model of effective supervision was working in a professional environment (Komakhi, 1994). Studies 2 through 6 were designed to assess behaviors of effective leaders, using the OPSTI to measure and monitor manager behavior. Leadership was studied across multiple professions: police work, theatre rehearsals, insurance, newspaper organization, a construction site, a government office, and other areas where the researchers could study leadership effectiveness through the lens of the operant model of effective supervision (Komakhi, 1994). Their findings showed that managers effective in motivating their subordinates spent time with others “in the trenches”, discussing work and performance-related issues.
Effective employers observe workers in action, and feed them their observations back to the workers, and spend a sizeable amount of time seeking out information about the performance of their subordinates (Komakhi, 1994). The major point is that the most effective leaders were the best at monitoring employees/their work and communicating consequences (positive and negative). Winston displayed these characteristics: he knew exactly what the British people wanted and needed to hear. They were tired of the false positivity and hope provided by Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement: they wanted the truth and they wanted a reason to fight. To defend themselves, and defend their country. Churchill captured and delivered this idea perfectly in his speeches, proving to be an effective leader.
Hypothesis. An individual will have greater leadership abilities in the workplace if they have a higher independence rating.
Variables. The independent variables are an individual’s level of independence. The dependent variable is an individual’s leadership ability in the workplace.
Method. We aim to establish a correlation between an individual’s level of independence and workplace leadership abilities. Our sample will be drawn from a pool of applicants to full-time job openings in Washington, DC. Each participant will be given a scale measuring independence, a scale measuring leadership, and a Myers-Briggs assessment to fill out during their application process. A t-test will determine the correlation between independence and leadership for the participant at the individual level. The Myers-Briggs assessments will assess how participants’ personalities differ, and if there is a correlation with the independence and/or leadership scales. If hired, they will be observed by their employer for signs of leadership ability, which includes their presence in the workplace, how often they are tasked with leading a project, and how quickly they receive a promotion.
Possible confounding factors lie in operationalizing independence and leadership. Multiple factors can contribute to an individual’s level of independence and leadership, and the relationship between the two constructs is dynamic and hard to observe. However, in recent decades standardized assessments of personality (for example, Myers Briggs and Big Five) have become popular and a variety of independence and leadership scales already exist. Threats to external validity lie in the scales’ generalization. Internal validity may be affected by the honesty of participants as scales and hiring questionnaires require self-reporting. Our research can be beneficial to both employers and applicants by providing them with a greater understanding of how independence prepares individuals for leadership in the workplace. To expand on this research topic in a future study, conditioning could be introduced into the workplace environment to observe how quickly employees can retrain their behavior.
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