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Behavioral Science Leadership and Relationships

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behavioral science leadership technique

Changing behavior is hard.

Behavioral science leadership techniques can help, to be sure. However, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to these techniques.

When I was a university professor and researcher, I used to think that we just needed to follow the behavioral science leadership techniques so clearly spelled out in our scientific journals, and all would be better. The journal articles were the ‘cookbook’ of behavior change, as it were. But if you’ve ever watched a top chef, you know they do more than simply follow instructions.

It’s the same with expert leaders. Some of them can make any crazy-looking technique or program work. I think that is because some leaders can build and leverage their relationships in powerful ways.

I’ve learned some things about how people build relationships from road cycling with groups of people.

You might know I love cycling and have met some great people who feel the same way. I wrote a piece on cycling and an important behavioral leadership practice recently here.

In cycling, I’ve noticed that when a new person joins the group, people initially might learn their name, but they know the person by the bike they ride – whether it is the Trek Madone, or the old steel LeMond (that’s me) – and cyclists love to talk about their bikes. Once you ride with a group regularly, the conversation often shifts to something more personal – perhaps profession. Then it might go to family, upbringing, education, travel, and other deeper beliefs.

The point is that it might be weird to try to go to those deeper levels by skipping over the more casual ones. And…as you might guess, there’s a study (likely hundreds, actually) on this behavioral science leadership practice.

A behavioral science colleague and friend of mine, Dr. Nicole Gravina, turned me on to this – it’s a study by Arthur Aron which found that when strangers were randomly paired up and they asked each other and answered a series of 36 questions, they developed closer relationships. Remarkably, some of the strangers from the study eventually got married after they participated!

Watch out, behavioral science leadership practices could get you married!

It’s been so widely reported that the New York Times and other outlets have done articles and even a video on it.

The way it works is that you ask 3 groups of 12 questions each, and each group is increasingly probing into personal details – see a list of questions here.

I frequently use this as an ice breaker for workshops among people who work together or who don’t know each other at all.  The participants can choose which questions they’d like to ask and answer, so there’s no pressure. There is always a good deal of laughing and smiling during it, far more than we usually see at work!

The important lesson here is to learn the real power in the behavioral science leadership technique of thoughtful question-asking.

Studies show that it makes you more likable, that it teaches you a lot about the person, and that it deepens your relationships. That’s something leaders really can use, and it’s more than just a list or set of techniques, it’s about caring about the person who you’re talking to and artfully demonstrating it.


  1. Kathleen Stengel says:

    Thank you for posting. I couldn’t agree more that relationships matter. I have found that a team that knows each other respects each other. Teams that can respect each other further each other through shared goals. Win all around but also…it’s nice to enjoy work with people you know a little:)

    1. John says:


      Thanks for your comment! Its great to hear your ideas – for sure, knowing each other better can promote perspective taking and a deeper understanding of ‘the baby in the back seat’, to use Pat Friman’s phrase.

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