How to Avoid the Thorndike Effect

Dave Draper was a champion body builder in the 1960s winning just about every contest he entered. He trained viciously, and often in isolation, but the results paid off.

Thirty years later you could find Dave training just as hard as he did when he was younger even though he wasn’t competing. Why would someone train that hard when there wasn’t a “payoff?” We find the same phenomenon with former Olympic athletes who continue to train at intense levels even though they too are no longer competing. Why do they do this?

Experiencing the Thorndike Effect

The answer to this question can be found in what is called Thorndike’s Law of Effect,” posited by Edward Thorndike in 1911, which simply states that those responses that are closely followed by satisfaction will become firmly attached to the situation and therefore more likely to reoccur when the situation is repeated. In other words, things we do which are past pleasant rewarded experiences tend to be repeated.

So how does this relate to project managers? Consider the individual who prior to becoming a project manager is an exceptional worker often going beyond the call of duty. This individual then becomes rewarded for work done as an individual, so it also becomes a very pleasant experience.

Thorndike’s Law of Effect then compels the individual to continue to doing everything as an individual even after becoming a leader. This would be manifested by developing the entire project schedule, budget, and scope without engaging others. After all, why should this individual involve others when working alone has been rewarded in the past?

There are at least four negative impacts that can result from the Law of Effect. First, the “Thorndike” project manager would no doubt be nonplused by the lack of buy-in from others who feel micro-managed by being told which project activities they must perform, and how much time they have to complete them.

Second, the project planning efforts will not take advantage of subject matter experts’ points of view. Developing a project plan in isolation will consistently produce inaccurate and incomplete results.

Third, project managers will not be able to hold project members accountable for their assigned portions of the project since they had little or no say in the planning process. Even though the project manager may delegate responsibilities they nonetheless cannot expect a reciprocal accountability.

Fourth, implementing the project plan will actually take longer to implement because of resistance from the “non-participants.” Engaging others through participative management may take longer in the planning phase, but it will take less time in the implementation phase. The overall advantage of using participative management is time. The overall planning process becomes quicker when others are engaged because they already “own the plan.”

Overcoming the Thorndike Effect

To avoid the Law of Effect, project managers are encouraged to respect it, and avoid it, recognizing that it will have an adverse effect on the overall project planning effort. This is not as easy as it sounds since up until now the individual has been rewarded for being a high-performing “Lone Ranger.” First time project managers must, therefore, use participative management immediately upon stepping out of the individual role into the leadership role.


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