Critical Thinking Corner: Where HR thought leaders question current thinking, offer new perspectives, and readers respond

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Imagine you hear a phone ring and suddenly become overwhelmed with feelings of hunger – salivating uncontrollably.  And if that began happening every time you heard a phone ring, you’d be alarmed…maybe even furious if you discovered someone had “programed” you to have that reaction.

Well, that’s what seems to be happening to people, increasingly, leaving Human Resources to deal with the fallout in the workplace.

More specifically, I’m referring to what psychologists call behavioral conditioning, made famous by the “Pavlov’s dog experiment” (Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, 1849-1936).  It demonstrated how ringing a bell every time a dog was fed could result in the dog salivating even when the bell was rung later and no food was present.  In sum, Pavlov and other researchers like B.F. Skinner showed how animals could be “trained” to have a certain behavioral response to a specific stimulus – and that stimulus could be almost anything, even a bell.

And yes, people can be behaviorally conditioned too – I believe the pop culture phrase for the extreme case is “being triggered”.  For example, did you ever get angry when you heard the name Trump …or Biden?  Yet, neither of them was in the room or actually doing anything to you in that moment – similar to salivating when a bell rings, despite no food being served.

Worse, human conditioning has been industrialized and amplified across entire societies.  Advents like social media use digital technology to bombard people with behavioral reinforcements such as “likes” to stimuli (posts) engineered to elicit strong emotional reactions like anger.

These conditioned responses then cause problems in the workplace that HR is tasked with solving.  Yes, as an example, I am referring to the “triggered” employee who sincerely cannot function because the president they wanted was not elected.  But, I am also referring to far more subtle behavioral conditioning, which can actually be more insidious – like the type that “trains” people to think certain ways or to believe things that are not really true.

Yet in either case, it can be equally difficult to deal with the employee’s conditioned response because it is trained.  Typical approaches like presenting facts and well-reasoned arguments rarely make a dent on someone who is “triggered” or having a conditioned response.  It’d be like trying to get Pavlov’s dog to stop salivating after the bell rings by simply explaining to it that there is no food present (if dogs could talk).  Rationale can have little effect on reflex, no matter how “right” the logic is.

So how have you handled “triggered” employees?  Readers can benefit from your advice and perspective!  Selected comments will be published in the next newsletter anonymously, or with your name if you prefer.  Send us your thoughts by clicking here.

Gary Dumais, Psy.D., SPHR is a Business Psychologist & Human Resource Consultant at Select Human Resources. Specializing in people-assessment, he profiles people for jobs, protects companies from bad hiring decisions, and gives decision-makers insight into people’s strengths, weaknesses, and potential. He has deep expertise in psychometric assessments and interview methods for hiring, development, and succession planning. Dr. Dumais is also a seasoned executive coach. He has a doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology, bachelor degrees in Psychology and Health & Human Services, and is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources with over 20 years of experience.