“Situational variables can exert powerful influences over human behaviour, more so that we recognize or acknowledge” – Philip Zimbardo

One of the fundamental concepts I came away with from my 6 years of studying psychology was that the systems people are in are the best possible predictor of what a person will do, more so than their personality. By this I am saying that if you put different people into the same environment you will likely get the same, predictable behaviour from them.

In the movie, Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hank’s character, Captain Miller, is a successful officer who is respected by his soldiers. They wonder what he did in his civilian life that has prepared him for the war. He reveals to his shocked fellow soldiers that his job back home is that he is a teacher.

Captain Miller: “I’m a schoolteacher. I teach English composition… in this little town called Adley, Pennsylvania. The last eleven years, I’ve been at Thomas Alva Edison High School. I was a coach of the baseball team in the springtime. Back home, I tell people what I do for a living and they think well, now that figures. But over here, it’s a big, big mystery. So, I guess I’ve changed some. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve changed so much my wife is even going to recognize me, whenever it is that I get back to her.”


This is an illustration of how someone with a completely unrelated background and experience can completely, when put into a totally foreign situation that demands it, become an effective soldier and leader.

If you put 100 completely unrelated people through military training and into a combat situation they will behave similarly to each other, irrespective of their backgrounds. They will do what the situation they are in requires them to do.

If you put the same 100 people through McDonalds training and to work in a one of their restaurants they will all behave very similarly to each other and will produce very similar service and products for their clients. In my own business, as much as possible I try to create systems that support the success of any broker, irrespective of their background or personal characteristics.

I’m not saying people will act exactly the same, but I am saying that the tighter the system, the more similar the results you will get from people who have very different personalities.

Perhaps this may seem like an extreme viewpoint, but there are numerous psychological studies that show people will adapt to the roles they are assigned, even if they are completely different from their normal lives.

The Stanford Prison

“If you put good apples into a bad situation, you’ll get bad apples.” – Philip Zimbardo

The most famous is the 1971 ‘Stanford Prison’ experiment. Without going into too much detail, a mock prison was created at Stanford University and students were assigned the role of prison guard or prisoner.

The participants adapted to their roles well beyond expectations, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted the psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. As these problems escalated the entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days.

Largely what I take from this is that being effective in business is not about having some brilliant sales personality. It is about creating simple systems that can be handled by anyone of reasonable intelligence and diligence in learning them.

It also works the other way, for our prospective clients. We need to put our prospects into marketing systems that naturally and logically move them to understand the value we offer, specific to their unique circumstances, and why they should choose our services. At all times the prospective client can opt out of the system or can