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Better Behavioral Health

I ran across this interesting question: When faced with a morally challenging situation, what helps you stick to your values?


You could remind yourself of how well the project is going, so you are not tempted to cut corners. Or you could reflect on the problems that come by not building to code.


But there is a third motivation “button” or driver here. It’s a psychological phenomenon called “regulatory fit.”

Two Types of Motivation

Regulatory fit can shape the moral choices we make, says the abstract for a paper titled, “Regulatory fit intensifies moral predispositions,” published this year in “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology” by professors Chethana Achar and Angela Y. Lee of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.


When people’s motivations are matched by the goals before them, they experience regulatory fit—they behave in the “regular” way they are used to.


“Individuals experiencing regulatory fit versus non-fit are more likely to behave in manners consistent with their moral predispositions,” the abstract says.


Some people are aspirational. They “fit” best with goals focused on positive outcomes. These people want projects to go well, and they aren’t inclined to list every mishap that could occur on the job.


Others think in terms of prevention. For them, fulfilling their assignments and avoiding conflicts are primary drivers of their behavior. They like to check off the boxes associated with meeting safety standards and project specs.


We tend to favor one inclination or the other—instinctively. Regulatory fit occurs when project goals match our inclinations. Non-fit occurs when a person’s inclination is not matched by the management’s expectations. Thus, to set up people to succeed, managers must know what drives them.

Example of Regulatory Fit

Let’s say team member “Bill” is the aspirational type. He gets on a job—he could be a foreman, a carpenter or an applicator—and he’s already, by nature, brainstorming ways to make everything go well.


Your job is to help Bill see the project succeeding. Give him aspirations to shoot for, and Bill will feel that his work is going well. Bill is easily engaged in (motivated by) projects. He does not need a reminder of where things could go wrong.


Now, if Bill encounters a moral choice—to frame 24 inches on center instead of a specified 16 to get done earlier, or to not use safety lines that may hinder workflow—then the “regulatory fit,” the aspiration to do things well, will prompt Bill do what he thinks is right. Your aspirational goal setting will nudge Bill in the direction he is already going. He will make the right choices about stud spacing and job site safety. And he will have a sense of fitting in.


In contrast, regulatory misfit arises when the supervisor provides Bill with direction that’s not natural for him. “Hey Bill,” you say at a morning toolbox talk. “Before you start work today, I’d like you to list all the pitfalls you could encounter today.” Such direction creates a non-fit because Bill doesn’t think in terms of pitfalls. He thinks in terms of positive outcomes, and you interrupted his thinking.

Careful Observers of People

The Northwestern Researchers also found that regulatory fit (or non-fit) combines with a person’s moral compass for better or worse.


Some people are more liberal, or flexible, when making choices. So, by asking Bill to think of the failures he must avoid, which go against the grain of his thinking, he may be inclined to take short cuts—if he does not view morality as binding.


A different person—let’s call him “Joe”—may welcome the Toolbox Talk challenging him to list all the job’s potential problems. Joe is different from Bill. And avoiding problems is what drives Joe to do good work.


The point is, watch out that you don’t create disconnects with people and how they view work. Of course, most people are basically honest, and research supports this. But the key for managers is to be careful observers of people. Are your team members more promotion-focused or prevention-focused? Either way, help them to adopt strategies that match their orientations. That will go far to helping them to do what they think is right.

Mark L. Johnson writes for the wall and ceiling industry. He can be reached via

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