Imagining the Workplace as a Laboratory

Posted on March 18, 2022

Pexels helena lopes 3688760

Scientist B.F Skinner made significant advances in understanding human and animal behaviour by conducting experiments under laboratory conditions. The power of using laboratory conditions is that the environment is consistent and controllable. Skinner was able to manipulate variables, one at a time, to determine its influence on behaviour.

When Skinner identified that the addition of a well-timed variable, increased the frequency of the behaviour occurring at the time, he would call this a reinforcing variable/reinforcer. For example, in an experiment involving pigeons, the bird received a food pellet each time it reached its neck up to a visible target on the wall. As it turned out, the pigeons were smart. Once they discovered that stretching the neck to a height resulted in food pellets, they simply did it more often.

Skinner discovered this pattern by examining an isolated behaviour in a consistent environment/laboratory; and, was able to describe helpful relationships. More powerfully though, he had discovered how to establish and maintain behaviour.1

These findings were found to apply to most, if not all species, including humans. It provides an opportunity to imagine the workplace as a “laboratory” of sorts, where changes can be made to create fulfilling work settings and help bring out the best in people.

Consider the person who has been a wonderful performer but is currently struggling to keep on top of workloads and has lost their happy spark. In discussion, you find there are six "potential causes/issues". Why not start an experiment by adjusting one or two of these. The idea is to change things in a controlled way to see what works best. This can be repeated to find the right blend, helping the person move toward being their happy productive self again.

Whether it is working with an individual, or experimenting with change to the broader workplace conditions, taking a laboratory approach and seeing your people shine can also be a self-reinforcing, rewarding thing to do.


1 Skinner, B. F. 1904-1990. 1953. Science and Human Behavior. New York: Macmillan.
* Photo by Helena Lopes


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