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ATD Blog

A Dialog with Thomas Gilbert


Thu Jan 01 1987


Thomas F. Gilbert has graciously suspended his pursuit of heavenly activities to start this dialog on performance, or "worthy performance" as he likes to call it.

Clark: First, I would like to thank you for being here. You coined the term, "The Great Cult of Behavior" -- can you explain what you mean by it?


Gilbert: In the great cult of behavior, the appeal is to control or affect behavior in some way. There is little or no technology of ends and purposes. Indeed, behavior itself is viewed as an end rather than a means to an end. It sees its enemy as people, because it puts great store on how people behave regardless of what they actually accomplish. To be able to shape behavior is considered the highest virtue.

Clark: I believe you were once a member of this cult?

Gilbert: I confess that I was once devoted to classifying people by how they behave and making assumptions about their potential through various IQ, personality, and behavior predictor instuments. But as a reformed member of the behavior cult, I must now insist that the enemy is not the people. Thus, it must be exorcised absolutely.

Clark: Could you give us an example?

Gilbert: OK -- how about a true story?


Clark: Oh, that would be great!

Gilbert: At Fort Jackson, a million GIs had spent over a half-billion pieces of lead in one firing range over a 9 year period. A chap by the name of Barton Hogg got a contract to clear out the lead. There must be $100,000 lying about for him to gather he thought -- all he had to do was get a few people to sift it out. He trained a crew of 60 labors to work in cadence at the task: a shovel of sand into the hardware-cloth box, a sifting of the box, and then a dumping of the lead into a milk pail. However, he was worried, although the 60 labors were lined up just as he deployed them and looked busy enough; they were just not getting the lead out as fast as he had planned.

So he brought in a crew of 50 college students on summer break. Since he had worked out the cadence himself and was quite pleased with it, he taught the college students to do the same. After the training, he deployed them in a straight line and told them to start working in the cadence he had just taught them.

Before long the students had broken off into small social groups that were formed around radios they had brought with them. Before long, there was no order at all -- most of the students had discarded their shovels and were scraping their sieves directly into the sand. He tried to shape them up and put them back in order, but soon their derisive hoots chased him away.

After lunch he tried a motivation talk. He talked about how he fed them well and asked them if they did not believe in a honest day's work? He talked about a person they all admired and asked them what this person would think of their behavior?


But it was all to no avail for soon they were back to their old ways. At the end of the day he yelled at them and then fired them all. He gathered up the buckets of lead and noticed something quite strange -- the college students had collected three times as much lead as the other set of labors!

When he went back to try to recruit them and perhaps a few other students he found out that he had been boycotted -- no one was willing to work for him.

Clark: So Hogg's mistake was looking at performance from the wrong vantage point?

Gilbert: Exactly! Human competence is a function of worthy performance (W), which is a function of the ratio of valuable accomplishment (A), to costly behavior (B). It is expressed as W=A/B.

Clark: Thus the way to achieve human competence is to increase the value of our accomplishment while reducing the energy we put into the effort?

Gilbert: Exactly young Mr. Clark -- you are a good learner! Thus the true value of competence is derived from accomplishment, not from behavior.

Clark: Thank you sir! Where could one learn more about this subject?

Gilbert: Why by reading my book, Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance.

Clark: Thank you for your time. By the way, is it true you get to spend all your time in Performance Heaven by pursuing leisurely theorems?

Gilbert: Oh yes indeed. As the old Taoist Maxim goes: Only those who take leisurely what the people of the world are busy about can be busy about what the people of the world take leisurely.

More on Thomas Gilbert.

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