Behavior and Engagement Extinction

Behavioral Extinction

By: Shawn P Quigley and Jon M Quigley


The Dodo, the Tasmanian Tiger and the Carolina Parakeet are extinct.  Extinction; however, does not just apply to animals but can be applied to behavior as well.  In the case of behavioral extinction we will be discussing things and/or actions that make motivation and positive employee behavior extinct.

A scary study on engagement

Before we go much further down this road, we should consider the information provided by the Gallup poll on employee engagement.  Those that are engaged in their work: in the United States, is approximately 30% according to the 2013 Gallup Poll. Globally, that number is much less; about 15%.  If that sounds bad to you, you have not heard the worst of it. In addition to (on average) a small percentage of our workforce being engaged, there are two other categories. The next category is for those people who are “Not Engaged”. This section of the poll yielded 52% of the total, which in-and unto itself is alarming. But when you add the final category: Actively Disengaged makes the poll even more disheartening. The Actively Disengaged section is for those personnel who deliberately take actions contrary to the interest of the company and the people that compromise it. Looking at the poll data this group (Actively Disengaged) compromises 18%, a percentage that should not even exist, much less be in double digits.

Gallup Engagement

Gallup Engagement (from Gallup Worldwide Report on Engagement 2013 page 83)


Long term malaise

Looking at the data provided by the Gallup Poll data and its’ trend over the past few years, we can only ask why people would be in either of the last two groups and not seeking employment elsewhere. Is it a function of the job market or economy that promotes people to stay with a job or company that they have no desire to see grow and prosper or are actively trying to destroy? Or is it something deeper, such as the job itself and/or the manner which they perceive the company is treating them? I was told once that; no one starts a job and intentionally plans on doing the wrong thing. Using this as our first point for discussion we would then have to surmise that some external force caused this apathy or disengagement. That would lead us to the question of; what could cause such an action or lack of action from such a large number of people?  Could it be a societal issue, a generational issue, or a corporate dynamic? Some of these questions could possibly be answered by knowing the generational composition of the Gallup Poll: which was very enlightening and indicates there are generational aspects to engagement. The Gallup Poll did venture across several different job levels and if we divide the jobs into three basic categories: Lower Income, Middle Income, and Upper Income or Worker, Supervision, and Management, this could also possibly provide some insight. If neither of these methods delineates a clear line of embarkation then this information will lead us back to job or company.


Gallup Engagement by Position

Gallup Engagement by Position (from Gallup Worldwide Report on Engagement 2013 page 84)


Nowhere to hide, low engagement is everywhere

As we can see in the figure above for the Gallup poll there is no actual change in data according to job position: Worker, Supervisor, and/or Manager. Assuming that on the average supervisors and managers make relatively good money, we can assess that it is not an economic issue causing this. At least not a pay related economic issue, anyway. It could however be that little to no other jobs are available to allow the individual to seek a job with more meaning to themselves and thus reducing the disengagement issue.

Engagement and Assumptions

Let us make a few assumptions to expedite the discussion:

  1. That no one possible category is greater than the others which could cause this lack of engagement.
  2. Three quarters of the entire work force is disenchanted with their current situation; this is directly supported by the data.
  3. No matter what the cause of this situation it is not conducive to a good working environment.
  4. All potential causes of this disengagement are interrelated and codependent.

We are using these assumptions to allow us to focus on one specific area of potential cause, corporate environment. By that we mean the atmosphere which a company presents to its’ employees.  We have discussed in previous blog post the effect of experiences on how well people perceive their current situation: see the Leadership Equation and Measures blog posts. We can also look at BF Skiner and behavior extinction.  Is it possible to get a perfectly engaged and motivated employee and turn those good attributes to bad?

Conditioning and extinction

BF Skinner and operant conditioning.  Operant conditioning is the modification of an individual’s behavior due to a stimulus.  This is not Pavlov’s dogs that experiment is in the form of respondent conditioning or classical conditioning.  For operant conditioning, the behavior is voluntary, and already exists in the present environment.  The behavior is a direct response to the perceived environment. Note that the word “Perceived” is used. It is used because our experiences tailor the manner in which we view the situation. This perception can be reinforced through both external and internal stimulus.


Every business, no matter the size should be concerned about employee engagement.  With about 30% engagement, the suggesting is business could be much more profitable if the remaining 70% of employees were moved to the engaged category.  A 30% engagement of your staff, suggests businesses pay more than what they receive. This reduces the profit margin for no good reason.  We will discuss potential methods or increasing engagement and determining who and why people are not engaged, and their impact on the 30% that are engaged, capitalizing on the initial employee engagement as a catalyst for longer term employee engagement.  We will write more on this study and BF Skinner and other motivational and organizational theorists.


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