Cognitivism and behaviorism aren't career choices -- they're theories about how people learn new skills or concepts and break old habits. At work, theories like this are considered in designing management and leadership development programs. In other parts of the business, behaviorism is the basis behind bonus programs to reward good performance, and cognitivist concepts are used regularly by problem-solving teams. Individual managers can also tend toward one or the other in coaching, mentoring or reprimanding employees.
Cognitivist Theories at Work
Cognitivist learning theories focus on how learners come to understand new concepts. During training sessions, participants are given examples that connect what they're learning to what they might encounter on the job. Outside the training room, flowcharts showing step-by-step activities and process linkages are used by employees and leaders alike to understand how things work or are supposed to work throughout the course of a business day. If your boss takes a cognitivist approach to management, you can expect to receive coaching on how to perform better and how to interact more effectively with team members.
Behaviorist Theories at Work
Behaviorism is about conditioning or training people to respond or behave appropriately. Behaviorist approaches to training are based on reward and punishment. The idea is to reinforce good behavior and discourage bad behavior. Behaviorism involves an observable cause and effect: the behavior is the cause and the reward or punishment is the effect. If your boss takes a behaviorist approach to management, she might scold you for doing something wrong or take you out to lunch for doing something well.
A cognitivist theorizes that how you behave influences your environment, whereas a behaviorist says your environment influences how you behave. With a cogntivist approach, you internalize your learning to give new concepts greater individual meaning. Once you’ve gained enough insight, your behavior changes accordingly, as does the way in which you interact with your environment. With a behaviorist approach, this process is reversed. How you respond to and interact with your environment causes changes in how you think, including your attitudes and beliefs.
Your workplace can benefit from both cognitivist and behaviorist approaches -- each applied in different uses and scenarios. Awards, bonuses and other forms of recognition, all of which provide examples of behaviorist theories of reinforcement, are powerful motivators. Disruptive behaviors at work are sometimes best handled with a behaviorist approach involving negative reinforcement, such as reprimands or other forms of punishment doled out in private settings to avoid public humiliation. If you're aiming for a management career, a cognitive approach in your leadership style might offer the best opportunities for career development and personal growth.
A careers content writer, Debra Kraft is a former English teacher whose 25-plus year corporate career includes training and mentoring. She holds a senior management position with a global automotive supplier and is a senior member of the American Society for Quality. Her areas of expertise include quality auditing, corporate compliance, Lean, ERP and IT business analysis.