Conditioning can be the process of training to become physically fit by a routine of exercise, diet, and rest. It also can be a simple form of learning involving the formation, strengthening, or weakening of an employer and employee.

Conditioning takes place between a boss and an employee, both in the office and in the field. Understanding the positive and negative affect of conditioning is one of the most important aspects of inter-company relationships. To understand conditioning you have to understand that people are easily conditioned to react the way you–an owner, boss or supervisor–want them to react. Conditioning can be a simple form of “brainwashing” that employees learn over time. Here’s an example of how a superintendent can negatively condition his foremen during a problem-solving meeting:

Superintendent Smith says: “These plans are a mess and haven’t been updated with all the changes. Worse yet is that our project managers don’t have a clue how to update the changes.

Old Foreman Jones responds: “Yeah, those office jockeys have no idea what it takes to get a job done.”

Superintendent Smith says: “The plan problem isn’t going to get fixed unless we fix it ourselves.”

New Foreman Mike replies: “I’ve seen this happen at other companies, where project managers leave messes like this for us to clean up.”

What the superintendent has done is to confirm the conditioning of the old foreman and to begin conditioning on the new foreman. Although there were other options in how the plan update problem could be solved, the superintendent chose to bring up the shortcomings of the project manager in order to reinforce his opinion of the project manager while elevating himself and making sure that his foremen think the way he does.


A supervisor, without consciously knowing it, may condition people to think like he or she does, and consider anyone who thinks differently to be a threat. A supervisor who negatively conditions employees is obviously insecure, but more importantly and dangerously, he or she limits the talent pool.

Who wants to work for a superintendent who wants his foremen to all think, react and respond like the superintendent? It’s an interesting question that deserves a lot of thought as you think about the impact negative conditioning has on a business. There are probably just as many people who will work for this kind of a superintendent, as there are those who won’t.

Last year I had a talk with a young superintendent who had been mentored by another superintendent who has a tendency to condition people to his way of thinking. I told the young man that I’d like to see his own personality come out in the way he supervises people. He explained that he thought he was doing just that. When I explained that wasn’t really true, and gave him some examples of how he was negatively conditioning others as he had been conditioned in the past, he was shocked when he realized it was true.

Conditioning people is not a complicated psychological endeavor. You don’t need a degree in psychology to understand it, because you learn it from the time you are born. Kids learn how to talk to their parents, teachers and other people in authority based on what they know about the person in authority and what works best.

The following is another example of negative conditioning in an office environment where a vice president meets with four construction managers to discuss a problem that needs to be resolved:

Vice President: “We buy 5 million dollars worth of drywall products a year and our project managers are just not doing a good job of getting good pricing. The only solution I see is to hire a purchasing agent.”
Old Manager #1: “I agree! We need to do something about it.”
Old Manager #2: “Just think if we could save 10 percent by buying better.”
New Manager #3: “Have our project managers been trained to buy at the best possible prices?”
Vice President: “What do you mean trained? They should know how to buy right.”
New Manager #4: “Yup, I agree. Our project managers should already know how to buy right. Since they don’t, we should look at hiring a purchasing agent to make sure we do buy right.”


In this situation old managers #1 and #2 have been around the vice president for several years and they know that the VP won’t give up until everyone agrees with him. They also know that the only reason the VP met with the managers was to make sure everyone agreed with him before he presented the idea to the president.

New manager #3 asked if the project managers have been trained in buying, which was immediately shut down by the VP because his mind was already made up. New manager #4 picked up on the fact that it’s not a good idea to come up with original ideas. He quickly learned that if you want to stay in the VP’s good graces it’s better to agree with him rather than express your own ideas.

The vice president knew before the meeting that the old managers would agree with him, but he didn’t know if the new managers would. The vice president not only confirmed his conditioning on the old managers, but he also taught the new managers how they were supposed to react to him in the future. This is conditioning at its most negative and destructive.

If you want to positively condition your employees you need to become a better listener and communicator. Let’s take the first example of the superintendent who is concerned about the plans being a mess.

Superintendent Smith says: “These plans haven’t been updated with all the changes.”
Old Foreman Jones responds: “Yes, you’re right, and it’s causing some confusion in the field. I’d like to have the project manager work with me onsite to get the changes updated as soon as possible.”
Superintendent Smith says: “Good idea! I’ll check with the office to see how soon we can get him onsite. Keep in mind that the PM on this job is in training so try to help him out.”
New Foreman Mike replies: “Let me know if I can help.”

In this scenario it’s clear that the superintendent has conditioned his old foremen positively based on his response. The super identified the problem without casting blame, destroying others, creating stress or by having to control people or the outcome. The way this superintendent dealt with the problem positively conditioned the new foreman to the point that the new guy was willing to jump in and help if they needed him.


Now let’s look at the second example of the vice president having a meeting with four of his managers to discuss how the company can save money through improved purchasing tactics.

Vice President: “Our company continues to grow and this year we will purchase 5 million dollars worth of drywall products. The reason for this meeting is to identify ways in which we can save money on the products we purchase.”
Old Manager #1: “One idea is to consider hiring a purchasing agent. Another idea is to have Jerry, our most experienced project manager, put together a training program to help all of our project managers buy better.”
Old Manager #2: “Hiring a purchasing agent may be too radical a change right off the bat. I think having Jerry train all the purchasing agents is a good place to start.”
Vice President: “Those are both good ideas. Any other thoughts or ideas?”
New Manager #3: “The company I came from had a purchasing agent and although I was told he saved the company a lot of money, there were a lot of problems getting materials on the job. There seemed to be too much red tape placing the order and getting it delivered when we needed it.”
New Manager #4: “I’d like a little more time to research the issue. It would really help if we could involve accounting in this decision. I’d like to see them generate some purchasing reports in order to see which project managers are buying at lower prices and find out why.”
Vice President: “I agree that Accounting should be involved in our decision. I’ll have them generate reports for all of you to look at and we will meet next week to make a decision. Thank you all for your ideas and comments.”

The owner or vice president isn’t going to have the solution to every issue that comes up. However, in this case, the vice president cannot have an agenda or his mind already made up if he truly wants to positively condition his managers. By being neutral and without an agenda he is going to get original feedback from his managers. The vice president is aware that once he receives this feedback he is the one that has to make the final decision and present the problem and what he and his managers believe is the best solution.


Negative conditioning is an atmosphere that people identify in minutes. They can identify the creator of the atmosphere and they can learn to adapt to the atmosphere and the creator. One of the most important jobs for an owner is to identify negative conditioning and deal with it, and be aware that it can start the minute a new manager or supervisor is hired. People in authority have to be neutral if they want original honest feedback. They are responsible for teamwork and the atmosphere of a company. People in authority are responsible for negative conditioning, which always results in division or so-called company cliques.

People in authority have to lead and follow, but most importantly, they must learn to listen. Listening is not letting someone speak until they are finished talking. Listening is learning and asking questions. This builds respect from the employees and they will be more inclined to support both the owner and the company in tough times. One of the best gifts you can give a person is your ear and not your mouth.

Remember: Teamwork begins with a fair contract.