What Freelancers Can Learn About Communication from Skinner’s Rats

If you ever took a course in psychology, you may remember the famous work of Burrhus Frederic

Photo via Sasha the OK photographer on Flickr

(B.F.) Skinner. Skinner worked with rats and pigeons in the mid 20th century and discovered certain things about how animals respond to specific methods of reinforcement.

In one of his studies he learned that if a lever rats could press rewarded them with a food pellet—but only sometimes, and not in a predictable manner—they would continue to try getting the pellets, even after thousands of failed attempts.

For us humans, this behavior comes into play when we engage in
hobbies like fishing or gambling, activities people often invest
endless amounts of time and money in with little to show for it. We
believe that the next big catch or score is just around the corner.

Skinner also found that when the pellets came out in a predictable manner, such as at fixed time intervals, the animals slowed down their efforts to get the pellets until such time as a reward could be expected.

The Takeaway for Freelancers

But what does this have to do with freelancing, or the business world in general? Skinner’s rats have something to teach us about communication and the creation of productive, happy relations between you and your clients—something I’ve seen in practice.

My husband and I recently went through a lengthy process to arrange financing for a home improvement project. In the end, we got our financing more or less as planned. But the experience was stressful and aggravating, and unnecessarily so. Moreover, nearly everything that was negative about this experience had to do with expectations around communication, and ties nicely back to Skinner and his work.

The company we worked with had a main office with one main phone number. But when I called this number, I got a gatekeeper who generally told me that the person I wanted to speak to was busy. I could then leave a message or be sent to someone else. In some instances, this next person could help me but usually not with everything. So I could leave messages for others, which I only got responses to some of the time. I could email individuals who had some involvement in the process, and this sometimes got results. My main contact, for whom I had a cell number as well as an email address and office phone number, was the often the best source for answers, but only randomly responded to any form of communication.

All this meant that while no single method of communication ever consistently got the desired results—they all got results some of the time. So if I really needed to find something out, or was under a time constraint regarding some decision point, I would—like Skinner’s rat—just try every lever I could find to push. This no doubt irritated some folks on the other side of the interaction, and it certainly aggravated me as well. The lack of predictability kept me guessing about when or if I would ever get answers to my questions and resulted in unnecessary stress and wasted time on all fronts. But it also got me thinking about how easy it would have been to avoid all this grief, had the company just followed some basic practices.

To avoid putting your clients in this position, pick a preferred way of communicating (phone, email, text) and stick with it. Tell your clients which type you prefer and what kind of turnaround time to expect from each interaction.

You might have a hierarchy of ways to communicate—for instance “I prefer emails for thorough explanations or to share lots of details, but text me if you need something urgently, and I will get back to you right away”—but be sure you can deliver on it.

Depending on how small your operation is, you may be the only person in the “communications department.” But it’s still important for your clients, especially the new ones with whom you have not yet formed a working relationship, to feel like they know what to expect. And in this age of so many ways to connect, it’s  essential for your efficiency as well as your clients’ satisfaction that you and they have some guidelines to follow.

Margaret Nicklas

Margaret Nicklas

Margaret Nicklas is a freelance writer and journalist with a special interest in covering public health issues, parenting and child welfare. She is also a skilled researcher and analyst who can support non-profits and other mission-driven organizations with their research and communication needs. Margaret has more than 20 years of experience in the public sector and holds master's degrees in both public affairs and journalism.
Margaret Nicklas

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