Innovation & Risk-Taking: Why Social Learning Theory Matters in Business and in Golf

Last week I spent four days playing eight rounds of golf in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with 19 other guys.  That is 144 holes in just over 96 hours.  Before you ask the question the answer is yes!  Yes, we are absolutely a little crazy!  We are also equally passionate about the game of golf.  Through this marathon of golf I noticed that something happened to us all when we are playing.  On the golf course, just as in the office, we were adjusting to our environment and influencing each other’s behavior.

The complexity of golf is one of the reasons I love it so much.  As with most sports after a certain level of proficiency it becomes a completely mental game.  Once that happens your score can be as easily determined by your mood, what you had for breakfast that day, or who you are on the course with.  One of my favorite quotes on the complexity of the game comes from Arnold Palmer.

Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated; it satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect. It is at the same time rewarding and maddening – and it is without a doubt the greatest game mankind has ever invented.” – Arnold Palmer

On this year’s golf trip we had several new guys join the group.  A couple of the new guys were really skilled players but most of them were like me, somewhere slightly better than average.  What I always find interesting with golf is how some good golfers have bad days and some average golfers have great days.  But in the end most of us continue to huddled around our handicaps.

This year I noticed something else, how the players in a foursome seemed to learn and feed off of one another.  The average players who were paired with a good player seemed to be taking on a few of their good habits (i.e. better tempo, better course management, etc.).  The inverse was also true in that the good players were sometimes taking on bad habits (faster swings, poor course management, etc.).  Throughout the week we definitely were influencing one another just by being present.  We were watching the actions of each other consciously or unconsciously.  I realized that this was the same phenomenon that I have been writing about in business.

In business we are continually observing our environment, consciously or unconsciously, and making adjustments in our behaviors.  A lot of my work focuses on how individuals adjust their risk-taking behaviors after they see how leaders address failure within the organization.  If the consequences of failure are too severe then the individual will reduce their risk-taking to a more modest level.  They are continually absorbing their environment and learning from the actions of others.

Psychologist Albert Bandura had pioneered work on the idea of “learning from and influencing others” in his research on Social Learning Theory.  The basic premise of Bandura’s research was that most human behavior is learned observationally.  We watch what others do and then we model that behavior.

“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.” – Albert Bandura 1977

Bandura’s conclusions shouldn’t be that shocking to any parent who has spent time observing their child learning a new activity.  The child watches another child or an adult and then mimics that behavior.  This process continues to happen over and over again throughout our entire lives.

So if we agree that most of our behaviors are learned by observing the actions and reactions of others, why are we not more purposeful in creating environments that reinforce the behaviors we want?  Why are our rules and policies developed for a one size fits all application without taking the time to understand how they are really affecting behaviors?

The example of this that I continually see is when an organization is trying to drive new innovation projects.  These projects are risky in nature and have a high rate of failure.  Leaders want their employees to take a risk and drive these innovation initiatives but they don’t have a plan in place for when the project fails.  At best the employees are forced to wear the “Scarlet Letter F” around the office until they are deemed worthy to move on to their next assignment.  At worst they might be fired immediately.  This is incredibly short sighted behavior because all of their other employees are watching what happens.  They see the actions and reactions.  These possible future innovators are undeniably going to adjust their behaviors.

Whether we like it or not we are continually influencing each other through our actions, our behaviors, and our policies.  If we want people to continue to innovate, to continue to tak risks then we need to create policies that promote the right behaviors.  Whether on the golf course or in the board room the best we can do is understand this fact and be mindful to influence each other in a positive way.  That is unless you have money riding on the match… and then all bets are off.  Fore!

Food For Thought:

  • How does your organization negative influence behaviors through policies?
  • Do you notice how the behavior of colleagues influences your decision making?
  • Do you notice how the behavior of friends influences your decision making?

3 replies to “Innovation & Risk-Taking: Why Social Learning Theory Matters in Business and in Golf”

  1. Eve Eaton | May 24, 2013, 1:11 pm

    Great post, Matt. I have to believe you’ve read the book “Influencer”. It talks about this very thing. And from someone who does social business for a living, something I see everyday. Good stuff!

  2. Matt Hunt | May 24, 2013, 8:20 pm

    Thanks Eve! I haven’t read Influencer yet but I definitely will check it out. Thanks for the suggestion.

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