Knowing what causes you to act the way you do is essential, whether you’re a leader or an employee. When you understand the nature of human behavior, you can make informed decisions better because you get to know why you do things that are not so good for you. Join your host Patrick Veroneau as he sits down for a conversation with Luca Dellanna about the nature of human behavior. Luca shares comprehensive, in-depth insights on the link between brain science and the practical things we do every day. He emphasizes how much your actions depend on what you want to achieve in life. Tune in to learn how you can motivate yourself to take action for positive outcomes and fight the resistance to change.
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Understanding The Nature Of Human Behavior And Developing Self Worth With Luca Dellanna
Thank you for joining me on another episode of the show. This episode is with the author, Luca Dellanna. He wrote a book called The Control Heuristic. I love this book. There’s so much value to it, whether you’re a leader or an employee. It’s talking about what motivates us to do what we do or what holds us back. We’ll talk about a concept. He talks about the expected emotional outcome as well as many other topics around how we become better in whatever stage that we’re at. You’re going to enjoy this. There are so many pearls in this. Let’s jump into it.
Luca, I want to thank you for taking the time to be on the show. I loved reading your book, The Control Heuristic. I couldn’t wait to get you on this show. Thank you for being on the show. This will be valuable for those that are reading this.
Thank you so much for inviting me.
I mentioned the title a couple of times to people that I’ve been working with. Some of them don’t understand what a heuristic is, so I thought maybe we could start there.
For me, a heuristic is almost like a rule of thumb. It’s a simple rule to make decisions. The point of view of the heuristic is that it’s not always right, but if we assume that it’s right, we get better outcomes than otherwise. The reason is that heuristics sometimes do not try to get every single decision right, so they look like they might have some risk conservation bias. Some people might think it’s irrational, but what we see is that if we follow the heuristic, we usually survive more. We get better long-term decisions that even if in the short-term it looks a little bit irrational.
In one point of this, you say that from a control heuristic, people behave to feel like they are controlling the risk their ancestors were vulnerable to. To me, the thing that I picked out on that was we feel that we’re doing that, but do we really do that?
One of the chapters in my book is about the fact that, contrary to common belief, we do not seek survival. Our behavior and instincts do not seek survival. What they seek is the feeling of survival. If you think about it, all rational or irrational behaviors that we do, do not bring more survival. What they bring is usually the feeling of survival. There is a very good reason why. Who we now depend on the genes that have been selected by natural selection over the millennia. We do not have any genes for decision-making. We have genes that describe how our brain is made. Our brain makes the decision on what we select. We did not select the decision-making process from natural selection, but we selected the genes that took the brain the decision that led to more survival.A lot of bad decisions that we take come because we feel good even if they’re not really good for us. Click To Tweet
The thing is, how does our brain interact with reality and make decisions? It’s true emotions and feelings. In particular, the rule in our brain is we tend to do more of the actions that, when we complete, create a release of some neurotransmitters in our brain of chemicals. What happens is that the brain that releases neurochemicals after doing an action that increases survival is the brain that will tend to more of the action and get selected.
What we select is the release of neurotransmitters of neurochemicals. What we get selected for and what we evolve for is to feel like we are increasing our survival with the right decisions. If you think about it, a lot of bad decisions that we take nowadays, for example, eating too much sugar, are decisions that come because we feel good when we eat sugar. Sugar was used to increase our survival in the past because nutrition was costly. Nowadays that nutrition is abundant, it’s the other way around.
Think about the last few years in regards to dealing with COVID. Decisions that have been made for individuals, whether it’s getting vaccinated, not getting vaccinated, wearing masks, or not wearing masks, how do you tie these in with that DNA build?
COVID is a great example. I believe that every one of us took the decision that we felt increased our survival the most. People who feel like walking indoors without a mask would decrease their chances of survival and would probably be more likely to wear a mask. People who feel that wearing a mask would make them feel the same emotions that they associate with being constrained or not having freedom are the ones that are less likely to wear the mask. We realize that we all look for what feels like survival and then we all optimize that, but then because we feel different things, we make different decisions.
You talk about these hypotheses that didn’t make it into your book but were thoughts that you have. One stuck out to me as it relates to that. The thing that I have found most valuable as I read your book in the work that I do was around expected emotional outcomes. I’d never heard that concept before, but it made so much sense to me. I’ve heard it in other ways, but for whatever reason, that resonated with me in regards to why we do or don’t do certain things. I was wondering if we could have a discussion on that if you could expand around how that evolved for you.
The overarching principle of human behavior is that we only take actions for which we have a positive expected emotional outcome. I’m going to simplify this a lot. There are two parts of our brain that relate to taking action. There is one part that makes decisions. It decides, for example, “I should go run outside so that I would get fit and lose weight.” There is another part that acts as a gate and can prevent us from taking action on decisions that we make. The gate follows a very simple rule. It opens if the decision has a positive expected emotional outcome and it closes otherwise.
If the idea of running has a positive expected emotional outcome for me, I will wear my sneakers and go out and run. If running has a negative expected emotional outcome, I will not wear my sneakers, go out, and run. Maybe I will confabulate some justification. The expected emotional outcome always relates to the action, not to the result. Most of us have a positive expected emotional outcome linked to losing weight and getting fit, but only some of us take action. Those of us who take action are those who have a positive expected emotional outcome not with the outcome, which is getting fitter, but with the action, which could be running outside, going to the gym, and so on.
The same applies to everything in life. For example, if you think about organizations, too often, managers try to incentivize with bonuses, promotions, and so on, but these are incentives on the outcome. As a manager, you see that a lot of times, even if you offer people a bonus, people will not take action. The reason is that they do have a positive expected emotional outcome associated with getting the bonus, but they do not have a positive expected emotional outcome associated with the task that you’re asking them to complete. Therefore, they will not work on it or they will do it just enough not to be fired, but nothing more than that.
To me, that’s a part that has been most fascinating about this, especially with the work that I do. When I’m working with organizations and leaders in trying to maybe get them to develop new habits, this has stuck out to me in terms of what I have to do with them. I have to create an environment where EEO is higher to make change than to continue to do what they’re doing. That’s what I found so fascinating about what you’re doing. There’s a term called WIIFM. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but it was an acronym that we used to hear quite often. It’s this idea of, “What’s In It For Me?” It’s so true. If we can’t activate that, it becomes very difficult for us to get people to want to change.
Let me clarify one thing. The What’s In It For Me has to be related to the action, not to the future reward. If you promise people a promotion at the end of the year, that incentive will only motivate a few people which are already motivated maybe because they already experienced feeling good with the promotion. Offering a promotion will not motivate a huge part of the workforce. They are the ones who are not already motivated and do not trust that if they do their work, a promotion would follow. If we want to go to motivate those people, then the solution is to not think long-term about, “How can I incentivize them at the end of the year?” It’s about thinking about the task at hand.
If we want, for example, an employee to make some sales calls, the question is, “How do I make sure that he has a positive expected emotional outcome associated with making the sales call?” It’s not with the reward if he reaches his quota, but with making the sales call. The solution is to ask yourself why he might feel bad while making the sales call and how could you teach him to associate a positive emotional outcome with making the sales call.
The solution usually is some form of coaching and training so that we ensure that he’s good at making the sales call. He makes the sales call. Something good happens after the sales call immediately. For example, when the client said yes, he gets the adrenaline rush from the client saying yes, not from himself getting the bonus at the end of the year. If he gets the client to say yes and the satisfaction of doing that, then he would be more likely to offer to do more sales calls, for example.Too often, managers try to incentivize by bonuses, promotions and so on. But these are incentives on the outcome. A lot of times, even if you offer people a bonus, they will not take action. Click To Tweet
There are two things I want to bring up because this is so important in the environment that we’re in around employees feeling engaged or not engaged. One of the tools that the Gallup organization uses is called the Q12. In that tool, 1 of the 12 questions they ask individuals is how often have they been recognized for the good work that they’ve been doing and has it happened in the last seven days. That’s where we miss an opportunity. We’re not consistently reinforcing positive behaviors or what’s good to keep people going. If it’s several months away, that’s a long time for most people if they’re not being reinforced along the way.
Let me explain what happens in the mind of the employee. When the employee does something good on Monday and if by Tuesday, he is not acknowledged, he will learn the lesson that efforts are not rewarded in this company. It does not happen consciously, but unconsciously. Therefore, the number one thing that I teach managers is to give early feedback. The moment that you catch your employee, doing something good, that’s the moment you should acknowledge them.
Not to sound crude, but it’s like training animals. You can’t reprimand a dog three hours after it did something that was disruptive. If it got into the trash, you find out three hours later, and then you go over and scold the dog, it doesn’t equate the two things. It’s the same thing with the reward. If it doesn’t happen close to it, it doesn’t know how to reinforce that.
I love this example. You mentioned the absurdity of training your dog by having an end-of-the-day performance review with your dog. That would not work. People have a much longer attention span, but still, it must happen by the end of the day or at most, the following day. It should not happen at the end of the week, end of the month, or end of the year.
There is some fascinating research in regards to motivating kids. The kids that were recognized for effort tended to perform better. It falls in line with what you’re saying. We’re not worried about the lagging indicator. We’re looking at what the leading indicators are, and that’s the effort. It is what we can control, whether it’s kids in school or adults in a work setting where we’re recognizing the input.
In workplaces, I would be careful not to excessively reward effort in the absence of results because then you get people who are great at showing effort even if it doesn’t bring results. Instead, what I suggest people do is break down the tasks into sub-tasks or the metrics into smaller metrics. For example, sales calls. You want to break it down into pieces. You want to say, “I love that you made your research before you called the decision-maker. I love that when you’re doing the call, you ask a lot of questions to understand the need of the customer.” We are not rewarding efforts. We’re rewarding small outcomes, actions, or behaviors. We reward good behavior, not effort. That’s the thing.
What can happen to organizations where there’s the cynicism that everybody gets a trophy when nothing has happened. There’s got to be a balance there, so I fully agree with that aspect of it. I’m curious. In this environment, organizations struggle quite often with the performance management review and what that process is. I would love your thoughts on it. It’s one of these tools that is a huge missed opportunity within organizations because it’s not managed properly or not put together properly. I would love your thoughts especially as it relates to this conversation. How would you do it?
I would have many performance reviews, not once a year. The minimum is once a quarter. It is probably better once every two months. If I have six performance reviews instead of one during the year, I have six chances to give people small objectives or attainable objectives to correct if they’re going in the wrong direction. I have six chances for them to improve. The learnings will compound much faster. That’s the first thing.
If one of my people is underperforming but they do not know it, I want to tell them early. If I tell them early, they can step up their productivity. If I tell them at the end of the year, they would be frustrated if they were expecting a bonus and then they don’t get it. Have frequent performance reviews. When I tell people to have a performance review every two months, they tell me that I’m crazy. The reason they tell me that I’m crazy is that they think that people will ask for raises or promotions six times a year.
The key is I usually give them raises and promotions during the December performance review. With that said, we still have five more performance reviews every two months, which are purely done to discuss your progress and whether you’re on the path to getting the bonus promotion at the end of the year. That’s how it should work in my opinion.
Along those lines, what I would hear most often is people saying, “I don’t have time to do that many touches in regards to this topic.” From my experience, it takes less time if you do it more often. This is how I would often describe it. In the US, imagine if I was on the East Coast and driving to the West Coast. I got in my car. I said, “It’s going to take me twelve days to get there.” I point my car in the direction of the West Coast and I start driving. I don’t have to get out of my car to see where I am until the eleventh month.
The likelihood that I’m going to get to the West Coast, where I wanted to go, is not that great because I haven’t checked anywhere along the way to see whether I am still on track or still going in the right direction. That’s oftentimes what happens in performance management. We set goals and objectives. In my experience with the companies that I see, in the eleventh month, in November, we decide to then look at where people are in regards to what they said they were going to do for the year.People are great at showing effort even if it doesn't bring results. Click To Tweet
If you’re off course or you haven’t come close, there’s no way that you’re going to be able to course correct to be able to meet your objectives in a month. It’s like cramming for an exam. It’s not going to happen. That’s the frustration with it. It’s a vital tool with the way you described it. There’s so much value that we can get from it when there are more touch points.
I will tell you one more thing. My background is in manufacturing. For almost a decade, I’ve been working with managers in manufacturing. One of the things that I tell them is that once per week, they should go on the production line and check what’s going on, look for people that are doing good things, and tell them that they’re doing good things, and look for people that are not working up to standard and call them out.
Usually, they tell me, “I don’t have the time to do that.” I explain to them that because they don’t have the time to do that, whatever they do in that time will be extremely significant. For example, a lot of manufacturing companies have problems that the workers are not wearing personal protective equipment. If the CEO goes on the production line and takes the time to wear the protective equipment, he will send everyone a clear message that he believes that taking the time to wear the protective equipment is an investment worth making. The CEO might say, “I don’t have the time to do that. My reply is, “It’s because you don’t have the time to do that, that it’s a costly signal, and because it’s a costly signal, it’s something that they would listen to.”
It’s a paradigm shift for people to do that. From a leadership behavior standpoint, the first behavior that we need to demonstrate is congruence. When you talked about that, if I go down onto the floor and put all of the personal protective equipment, I walk the talk. What I say and do is the same thing, and I set an example to everybody else that this is important and I’m willing to do it myself. I fully agree with that.
Shortly after I read your book, I sent a post out on it. It was around increasing self-worth. From a leadership standpoint, a lot of times, my first focus is on helping people lead from the inside out. One of the things that I found value in what you had written was the exercise of creating self-worth and things that you can do. To me, it tied in with the happiness that you talked about later on. I was wondering if you could talk about that. It’s a different twist on how you develop self-worth. Why is that important?
Let’s say that you have an objective. You would maybe make a plan and say, “I have to take the action so that it will bring me to this objective.” Maybe you discovered that you don’t take that action because maybe one week passed and you didn’t take action. That means that the action is too big for you. Maybe you do not believe that you are able to do it, or that if you do it, something good will happen. Usually, the solution is to get a smaller step. You do this small step and you will experience that doing the action brings progress. That’s what will build your capacity to take action in the long term. That’s what self-worth means. It’s this belief that taking action brings progress.
One of the things that I would advise a manager is to build the self-worth of their employees. This doesn’t mean building self-worth by motivating or telling them, “You’re worth it.” It means giving them small tasks that are likely to bring in a good outcome even if it’s small so that they experience that taking action brings good results. That will build the capacity to take action in other contexts.
When you talk about that, do you see that as the same thing as building self-efficacy in individuals where I’m trying to build that belief that I can do this?
I would say that’s the same thing as the belief. Efficacy is more like a know-how thing. I’m effective when I know how to do things properly. Instead, self-worth is more of the belief that taking action in the right way will bring good results.
You talk about happiness as a lagging indicator, which I love. I do think that oftentimes, we chase happiness or the outcome. It’s more important to look at what are the things that if we were to do certain things, happiness organically happens by itself. We don’t have to chase it. It becomes part of what we do.
One cannot chase happiness by taking short-term actions that they think will bring happiness. Happiness is something that naturally ensues when you take care of your problems, know yourself, and then get the things that you need. They’re not necessarily the things that you want, but at least those that you need. A lot of times, when I see people that are unhappy, for me, it means that there is some structural problem in their life that they need to take care of. They will not get happier for me by going on holiday if there is a structural problem in their life. They will get happy if they solve the structural problem.
We live in a society where that’s what we do in terms of the next promotion. “Once I get that, I’ll be happy.” It could be a new relationship. “Once I leave this relationship and start dating this person, then I’ll be happy. Once I move into this house, buy this car, or have this piece of jewelry, that’s the happiness point.” We talk about hedonic adaptation. The research would suggest that after about three months, that shiny car is just a car again. It doesn’t fulfill the need that you talk about.Self-worth means having the belief that taking action is being progressed. Click To Tweet
We are terrible at knowing what we want. Let’s imagine that someone is happily married. Think of the average happily married person, and then there is a genie that appears. The genie says, “You can choose from everyone in the world the one person that will become your next spouse.” I am almost sure that everyone would choose someone that would bring them less happiness than their current spouse. The reason is that there is so much that we do not see about people.
To make a relevant example, there is the story about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. Johnny Depp could probably choose almost any partner. He was one of the most attractive male people on the planet, and yet, he chose terribly. That applies to a lot of people. Happiness is not much about choosing precisely, but it’s more about building yourself and your life in such a way that then happiness and the things that might make you happy will naturally come with it.
That’s a whole separate topic too in regards to how we choose people. When somebody says, “I can’t live without that person,” that’s not a healthy relationship as opposed to somebody that says, “I choose to be with this person. When I’m with this person, I’m happy.” If you feel like you can’t be without somebody, I see it as dependence on that person.
It is the same thing for jobs. An employee who doesn’t need the job would probably be a better employee because he would be more likely to push some things, take a little bit of a risk where it can bring good outcomes, and come up with ideas.
The bigger challenge for leaders is that people are much more willing to walk away from their roles and try something else. From a leadership perspective, it requires leaders to tap more into that expected emotional outcome. “What’s important to the employee? How do I satisfy that individual?” They’re more likely to say, “I’m not doing this. I’ll go somewhere else. There are plenty of opportunities that I don’t have to be here.”
I will tell you one thing. Most people do not quit a job because they are looking for something else. They quit a job because the job got frustrating. As a leader, you can do much more for employee retention rather than looking for ways to keep people in your team or your company by removing sources of frustration. Look for the excessively bureaucratic process. Look for the middle manager who is pissing his people off and solve those problems. You will necessarily improve retention by a lot. It will be much cheaper than offering them huge perks or organizing big events.
The research validates that that in the long run is not what matters to people. It has some relevance, but there are much simpler ways to get people to be engaged and want to be around. We’ve overcomplicated a lot of it. You have a whole separate section of your book where you talk about things that didn’t make it into the actual book, but there are thoughts that you have a hypothesis on. I’m curious. From your perspective, is there one in there that you continue to want to develop?
One thing which should be important to society is the chapter on mimetic societies. All humans have the tendency to imitate others. Usually, there is this common belief that it’s something dumb, but imitation is a powerful strategy when there is skin in the game. I’ll make an example. In the past, imitation was a great strategy because if someone was eating poisonous berries and died, he would not be allowed to be imitated anymore. Necessarily, the pool of people that are around for you to copy is the people who survived and eventually tried. In the past, usually, with skin in the game, imitation means copying successful strategies.
Nowadays, there is much less skin in the game than in the past. There are so many people to imitate around. A few of them are doing good things. A lot of them are doing wrong things. Imitation in this case becomes a liability. The problem is not imitation. It’s the lack of skin in the game. We can talk about a lot of ways on how we can bring more skin into the game in society, but for me, that’s the main reason. One of the big importance to have skin in the game is because people will imitate it. We need to make sure that only people who are doing the behaviors which are not harming society are left to imitate.
I think of two things on that. One is the book, Skin in the Game, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s a fascinating book. Secondly, I think of a quote that was by Jim Rohn. He said that we’re the average of the five people that we associate with the most. If we’re looking for positive role models or imitations, success leads to clues. Follow those people that are successful at it now, and that’s probably a good indicator of how you might be able to get there as well.
One that stuck out to me in that section was around narratives. We all have our own narratives. It’s almost like we justify the decisions we make. We can tell ourselves our own stories. I’ve seen over the last few years, we all have our own narratives of what’s right and what’s wrong depending on what our beliefs are.
I made the example of myself wearing my gym shoes and going to take a run. What happens a lot of times is that I decide to go for a run and then I do not go running. The reason why I didn’t go running is maybe that it’s raining or because my knees are a bit painful. These are all justifications. The only reason why we don’t take action is that the expected emotional outcome associated with that action was negative. Everything else is justification. It’s a narrative that our brain automatically constructs to bridge dissonant concepts. One is that we wanted to go running and the other one is that we didn’t go running. The dissonance needs to be bridged by that.We are terrible at knowing what we want. Click To Tweet
There was a book that was written called The 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins. I would be curious about your thoughts on this. Her whole concept on this is that if we wait longer than five seconds, generally, another part of our brain picks up and justifies why we should or shouldn’t do something. Whereas if we don’t give ourselves that amount of time, we’re more likely to take the action. We don’t think of why we don’t do it. I’ve thought about that a lot.
As a runner, I am certainly one of those that I can get dressed fully to go out for a run, and then I see some stuff on the counter that needs to be tidied up. I go do that and then do something else. The next thing I know, I say, “I don’t have enough time to go for a run right now. I’ve got to now get ready for work. I’ll run at the end of the day.” That doesn’t happen either because the end of the day comes and I’ll be like, “I’ve got too much on my plate. It’s too close to dinner. I’ll run tomorrow.”
There is some truth to these types of consoles. There is also a similar thought by Tony Robbins that stuck to me. I’ll paraphrase along the lines of what he said. He said, “You should change your beliefs or your objectives, but you will know that you changed the objectives or the beliefs the moment that you take action. If you think that you should change your beliefs or objectives but you’re not taking immediate action, then it means that you didn’t change your beliefs and objectives.” That’s true.
I’m trying to figure out how I fit in this. There aren’t many runs that I go on that when I leave, I’m like, “I can’t wait to go do this.” There is not one run that I’ve ever come back within an hour of finishing that I’ve said, “I’m so glad I did that. I wouldn’t trade that. I wouldn’t have not run knowing what I know now an hour after I finished.” There are plenty of times when I’m like, “I don’t want to do this,” but I do it. I’m trying to reconcile that in regards to the expected emotional outcome. The initial part of the run for me is, “I don’t want to do it,” but I’m one of those that push to think, “I’ve played this movie enough times that I know the end result is going to be good,” so I force myself through that.
The thing is that you know it unconsciously. Knowing it consciously, everyone probably knows it doesn’t matter towards taking action. It’s whether you know it’s subconsciously.
In terms of an employment or a leadership perspective, there are so many things that we’ve talked about that are so important and valuable. If people want to contact you, what’s the best way to get in touch with you?
My email is Luca@Luca-Dellanna.com. Otherwise, you can look for my website. There is a contact form. I personally read all emails. That’s the best way to contact me. You can Google my name, Luca Dellanna, and then the contact form would pop up.
I highly recommend your book. It is one of my favorite books that I’ve read. Thank you so much for the opportunity to discuss this. There are so many great pearls in here, much more than what we’ve talked about on this. There are so many different ways we can go. Thank you for taking the time to be on the show.
Thank you so much for inviting me and for the discussion and other suggestions.
I wish you all the best. Take care.
- Luca Dellanna
- The Control Heuristic
- Skin in the Game
- The 5 Second Rule
- Contact Form – Luca Dellanna
About Luca Dellanna
Antifragile Organizations consultant, author of 7 books. Check my course on Antifragile Organizations!
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