This is a fascinating debate which can be tackled from many angles, Theology, Science and it’s empirical evidence or of course good old fashioned experiential evidence. The subject goes right to the very heart of human behaviour and what makes us do what we do and can be applied to recruitment or any other area of commercial business. You can see why we are so fascinated by it as although we can never truly see into the future, the ability to accurately predict human responses and behaviour in all of life’s situations carries obvious and significant benefits.

I don’t think I’m alone in my assumption that moment to moment we are of course free willed, able to determine our own behaviour and move towards our own destiny in the way and direction we choose. I think the real debate is to what extent does our undoubted programming influence the way we behave, and in what situations does the free will over ride the programming, or alternatively when does the programming over ride the free will.

One situation I continue to see this in action is as a sports coach. My university trade was Sports Science and I’ve spent many years since competing in one to one racket sports and now coaching my boys in the same. My guess is that everyone reading has had the experience of being nervous whilst performing a motor skill, a good example might be a driving test. The general principle is that motor skills become much harder to deliver consistently when under pressure, but this is countered by hours of practise to make the programming so robust it works under greater and greater pressure.

For my boys I describe the coaching process (or nagging as I otherwise call it!) as ‘grooving’. Rather like riding a bike along a grassy canal bank, eventually the tyres carve a muddy groove in the grass. Eventually the groove becomes so deep and established it’s actually difficult to get out of the groove even if you turn the wheel, and so it is with grooving motor skills and behavioural patterns. The more we practise them the deeper the grooves become to the point where it’s actually difficult to get out of the groove even if you wanted to. If you want to cycle on a different part of the path, you may find you have to go all the way back to start in order to begin to create a new groove.

Before we return to more occupational implications, one more sporting example as to the power of understanding how this works. For years I sparred on a tennis court with a guy called Chris. We knew each others game really well and I watched him compete over and over again for years. He had the most amazing running forehand topspin pass which he could whip up the line whilst running at full tilt to reach it. It was sooo good I would see his opponents hit excellent approach shots into his forehand corner, I could shut my eyes whilst he flew across the baseline to the ball and opening them after hearing the familiar ‘pop’ knowing full well I’d open my eyes to see the ball flying up the line for a winner with a Rafa style fist pumping finale!

Here goes the problem. On the practise court, if I needed a key point I would feed an approach shot into his forehand corner. His eyes would light up as his wheels took him full tilt across the basline, winding up the forehand as he went. As soon as he started and committed to his swing…..all I had to do was walk to the left knowing where it was going to intercept the volley for a winner. The fist pumping finale then replaced with a barrage of expletives and racket hurled into the fence with the frustration that we both knew what was going to happen in advance.

In this case, this otherwise extremely successful behavioural pattern was so well grooved, he found it almost impossible to climb out of the groove even when he knew he should. The sporting solution is of course to have available several alternative programs to implement in any given scenario but even then, you need to create a program which tells you which alternative and select and when. If at any point your opponent (or their coach) can work out your programming you have a problem.

There are parallels and links here with what we may all call bad habits we can’t shake right through to addictions. Beneath them all lie grooved neural pathways that are incredibly difficult to derail. We can be completely aware of an undesirable behavioural pattern yet awareness alone is simply not enough to allow us to depart from the behaviour without some structured process being followed to re-program us to behave differently in the future. In sport this may take the form or coaching, with addiction it may be counselling and other forms of therapy.

My conclusion from this is that although we are free willed, I think we may under estimate the power of our underlying programming. Further more, I believe the more and more pressure we are under, the more we resort to pre-programmed responses and away from free willed decision making. In business we are of course often under pressure in our interactions, as are the people we are engaging with. Without question, just as in the sporting contexts above, people will often resort to their pre-programmed behaviours as they go about business meetings, negotiations and so on.

So how does this all help. Well firstly on a macro scale there are clearly huge implications of accurate market appraisals through market research. We often think we understand the best strategy or approach to a commercial challenge but we need to be careful that we are not just revealing our own leanings. Just as individual behaviours can be predictable via their grooved behaviours, so too will market behaviours be predictable once we properly understand them.

On a micro scale, in the age of digital communications and social media there can be a tendency to digitise communications as much as possible to increase efficiency and the volume of work possible. But if we are to truly understand our customers, truly read and learn their behavioural patterns, we still need to be maximising our face to face contact time with them. Away from the customer keep detailed notes following all your interactions and as the patterns that build up their tendencies may be more fixed and revealing than you perhaps thought. From a training perspective focus the softer skills of observing and recording behavioural patterns, it’s not a crystal ball but it may be closer than you think, it’s always easier to hit the wining shot when you know in advance what you are likely to be dealing with.