Structure Determines Behavior

You’ve probably heard the saying, “structure determines behavior.” When a leader tries to manipulate structures to change behavior and it doesn’t work, it means there’s something else at play: the invisible structures. Let me give an easy example to frame this idea.

Kim, Alex, and Chris live in the same town and all  three of them have a job interview with ABC Widget Company on Tuesday but at different times during the day. The company is 50 miles away and none of the interviewees, Kim, Alex, and Chris know each other.

  • Kim drives 25 miles and sees a road-block. Kim fires up the GPS and finds an alternate route to the location of the interview, but arrives ten minutes late.
  • Alex drives 25 miles,  sees the same road block. He gets discouraged, throws a fit, turns around and goes back home.
  • Chris drives 25 miles, sees the road block, gets out, removes the road block and travels to the interview arriving early.

Why did Kim, Alex, and Chris behave differently, all things being equal, when confronted by the same environment and structural barriers?

Kim was highly motivated, didn’t need the job and had a high degree of self-confidence.  Alex didn’t believe it would be possible to get the job, didn’t sleep good the night before, and was under extreme stress personally and professionally. Chris always stretched the boundaries, and because of inside information Chris knew the road construction was finished except for posting the signs.

The motivation, the mind-drama, the knowledge and desire which belonged to Kim, Alex, and Chris are the invisible structures that contributed to their behaviors.
What leaders often misunderstand is that there are always invisible components at play in any structure. Those invisible components include, but are not limited to:

  • Structures of knowing
  • History
  • Knowledge
  • Desire
  • Motivation

In No-Drama Leadership in the chapter on Environment, I talk about structure from the perspective of the visible and the invisible, the internal and external. Enlightened leaders, when making decisions or analyzing the culture do not only consider the physical and visible structures; they consider the invisible.

MMarlene-Blk4arlene Chism is an executive educator, consultant, and author of Stop Workplace Drama, (Wiley 2011) and No-Drama Leadership (Bibliomotion 2015). She works with executives, and high-performing leaders who want to transform culture in the workplace. To explore opportunities please email