Situational vs. Dispositional Management

In my post about Philip Zimbardo’s work, I mentioned the concepts of situational vs. dispositional tendencies. One might see these as being obscure cognitive constructs. However, a recent situation made me realize that beliefs about these tendencies have direct consequences on management styles. So let’s dig into this some more by starting with a description of the two tendencies before getting into consequences for management.

Dispositionists believe that our tendencies and behaviors are fixed because of the kind of person that we fundamentally are. They search for explanations in a person’s character to explain their behavior. So when a criminal steals, they try to find the “flaw” in that person’s character that would make them perform such an act. This explanatory search can concentrate on nature (looking for genetic correlations) or nurture (looking at the childhood surroundings), but the search is for a character trait within the person that explains their actions.

Situationists like Zimbardo think that people’s behaviors, while influenced by their parents and upbringing, are dominated by the situation in which they act. The Stanford Prison Experiment is the most glaring example of this, where intelligent, well-adjusted college students turned into abusive guards and mentally unbalanced prisoners within three days of being placed in a prison environment. Because of these overwhelmingly powerful situational effects, if somebody performs “evil” actions, it is not necessarily an indication of a fundamental character flaw on their part; instead the situation must be examined to see how it contributed to the actions.

When comparing the two, the dispositional viewpoint is easier to understand, with a simple narrative to explain somebody’s actions (“Lucifer is a bad person, which is why he did bad things”). The tricky thing here is that saying something is something raises warnings flags for me (see my review of Wilson’s Quantum Psychology for a longer take on the difficulties of “is”-ness). Attributing a characteristic as a fundamental component of something, as is implies, simplifies the narrative, but at the cost of making us more vulnerable to the true complexities of life (I’m reading Taleb’s The Black Swan right now which expands upon this idea). The dispositional viewpoint also has dangerous consequences in how we raise kids: treating intelligence and talent as fundamental characteristics of children actually retards their development, as they don’t even try to improve themselves. I think that while we have dispositional tendencies, we need to recognize the situation defines how we behave. But I’m going to stop with the discussion of the tendencies themselves (since others have done it better), and focus on the managerial consequences of these two ways of thinking about people.

In a dispositional workplace, life is relatively simple – you interview candidates, find the ones that have the right fundamental attributes (e.g. “Smart and Gets Things Done”), and then focus on removing obstacles to progress so that these people get things done, in accordance with their nature. It’s a nice, tidy view of the world. Unfortunately, I think it’s too simple, as it ignores the influence of the system on the attributes that people display – people that are tremendously successful and effective under one system might be completely ineffectual and unmotivated in another system where their strengths go unused, as sports teams find out each year in free agency.

Situational management is about designing the system to match people with the appropriate environment to get the desired organizational results. This system design can take a couple forms:

  • Designing a financial incentive system that rewards appropriate behavior, although Robert Austin cautions us as to the difficulties with this.
  • Desiging a culture and vision that reinforce the desired employee characteristics towards a common goal, such that employees “believe in the mission they are trying to accomplish and know that they are contributing to its success”, as a former CEO of Southwest Airlines puts it.
  • Understanding employees’ strengths and weaknesses and giving them jobs that leverage their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. The canonical example of how not to do it is promoting a great software engineer into management, since the manager mindset is completely different than the engineer mindset. Good management in this scenario is about placing people in situations that maximize their chances for success while contributing to organizational goals.

What’s I like about this conception of management is that it means that management is a design position. Management in a dispositional world is about hiring the right people and then getting out of their way – it’s passive and uninvolved. Management in a situational world is an iterative systems design problem with constraints – managers have to pick a vision, align employees with that vision, work towards the vision, re-evaluate progress, possibly pick a different vision that aligns better with the strengths of the employees, etc. It’s an ongoing active process that involves being involved with all aspects of the business, understanding how employees work best, what the organization’s capabilities are, monitoring the environment outside of the organization to understand how to align potential outputs with environmental demand, etc, and using that understanding to better design how the company works. This is the type of manager I aspire to be someday.

3 thoughts on “Situational vs. Dispositional Management

  1. “What’s I like about this conception of management is that it means that management is a design position.”

    So, I just spent basically the last week putting together an hour or so long class on game design. The talk started out as a talk on what game designers *do*, but I ended up spending the bulk of the time on what game designers design.

    The core of it really is that a game is a series of compelling decision points where the user can make an informed decisions that have consequence – and all this is done in the context of a tight, consistent and understandable-to-the-user feedback loop.

    From a systems designer perspective, that’s the core of a game – graphics, story, consistency, blah blah blah all feed back into making those points compelling, informing the decision maker, and providing consequence.

    Then it all gets back to sort of basic conditioning – using the feedback mechanisms to give players appropriate rewards/punishments for their behaviors. As you implement the system, you test, and where you don’t get the results you want, you iterate until you do.

    It’s not terribly different than training anyone (or anything) to do anything.

    At GDC2008, Jane McGonigal talked about using game design to better the real world. IMO, if most managers approached management like game design, we’d have better managers than we do now.

    In the class thing, I talk about how basically, the things that tie into compelling/informed/consequence in a game are Narrative, Risk, Presentation, Systematic Consistency, Progression, and Reward.

    Taking those things and applying them to to individual employees to maximize their utility seems pretty straightforward to me.


  2. I think you’re absolutely right that these two ways of looking at the world are deeply relevant to management practice.

    But I think you’re mistaken to set them in opposition as dichotomous. There’s absolutely nothing in them which makes them mutually exclusive. In fact, in American culture right now, typically those whom you characterize as situationist (and probably you, yourself) generally only consider themselves such in contrast to a particular type of absolutist dispositionalist which is unfortunately widespread, which holds that situation is entirely irrelevant. But it’s not that you have have gone as far in the other direction, dispensing with disposition as a relevant factor; to the contrary, you see the utility in disposition as well, as your “leverage strengths” example nicely exemplifies.

    Absolutist situationalism — that which dispenses with disposition entirely — becomes just as much as a horror show as absolutist dispositionism. Absolutist situationalism treats humans as indistinguishable interchangeable cogs — if we are totally products of our situation, our reactions unmediated by anything we bring to the experience, then we have no individuality and no individual needs. Absolutist situationalism makes no accomodation for disability and no attempt to leverage differing strengths. So absolutist situationalism in management also leads to inhumane and inefficient workplaces.

    To the extent one finds in oneself a tendency to see the world in terms of one or the other, one should be attempting to compensate for that bias. Both situation and disposition are important factors in management, and if you have a tendency to neglect one, that is a ball one’s eye isn’t on!

  3. Seppo: Very cool analogy to game design – let’s talk more.

    Siderea: Good point that absolute situationalism would be a horror show – I should have caught that, given that I have previously decried management by numbers. I overstated my case for rhetorical purposes, but you’re right that an awareness of both tendencies is needed and balance should be maintained between them.

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