I am often asked by HR professionals why some retired military officers transition easily into civilian employment while others do not. That’s a big question with many facets – too many to get into here. However, it did bring something to mind that may be helpful to readers.
As a behavioral scientist, my interest is related to human behavior in social settings, such as a work environment. What drives behavior? Can behavior change, even deeply embedded habits? If so, how?
Many of my organizational clients find me because the former officers they have hired – at considerable cost – are floundering. Should the organization continue to invest in the development of these folks or resign itself to a limited return on investment (ROI)?
My answer to two of the questions above – can behavior change and should organizations invest in underperforming senior hires – is yes. No doubt about it. The third question – what drives behavior – is a bit more complex but worth the effort to consider.
Some schools of thought believe that emotion drives behavior. So, an external event occurs and, for a variety of reasons, it triggers an emotional reaction which in turn drives behavior.
It has been my experience and that of many behavioral scientists that it is actually thought that drives emotion and behavior. This is why two people can have very different reactions to the same event. Each of us has our own way of interpreting the world around us based on our upbringing and lifetime of experiences.
Let’s look at an example related to military transition. I had a client who was about a year out of his military career, working in a civilian IT organization. He was struggling and I was brought in to turn the situation around if it was possible to do so. The question in the mind of my client – the organization that hired me – was, “Why is this guy so difficult to work with when I’ve got this other guy over here who came from the same background and is a dream?”
By speaking with both men one-to-one, I was able to quickly see key differences in the way they interpreted similar events. Specifically, the “dream” colleague approached the civilian experience with humility and humor; he knew it was going to be very different and that he would probably feel like a beginner for awhile. He conveyed this attitude through light humor and a general request for feedback from seniors, peers and staff so he would learn to operate differently.
Meanwhile, the “difficult” colleague was taken aback by how different everything seemed to be in his new civilian work environment. The job itself was basically the same – definitely in his strike zone – but accomplishing the work seemed to be fraught with political landmines. As a result, he felt defensive and embarrassed by constantly being proven wrong. This in turn led him to behave in an aggressive manner.
You could say that the difference between these two former officers was based on different emotions – one felt humble while the other felt defensive – but you’d be missing step: the thoughts are what triggered the emotions that led to the behavior. The easy colleague went in with one set of thoughts about what it would be like and how he would experience the new situation. The difficult colleague went in with a different set of thoughts about himself as an expert, regardless of context.
My work with this particular gentleman focused on identifying the thoughts and assumptions “underneath” his emotional reactions. By scrutinizing them under the light of reasonableness, we discovered incorrect assumptions and unhelpful expectations that contributed to his reactions. From there, it was a relatively simple process to get things on track and position him for success.