We’ve all been there before. Whether it’s working on a process improvement project, giving direction to those we manage, telling our kids what to do, etc. People don’t always do what they’re supposed to do. So what can you do about it?
In this post I’ll share with you an overview of a short presentation I use with my clients to quickly explain how using positive reinforcement after a desired behavior takes place can lead to sustainable behavior change.
People behave based on two things. First, what happens before a behavior (i.e., training, coaching, giving direction), and second, what happens after the behavior takes place (i.e. rewards, punishment).
The biggest problem I observe with my clients who are trying to change behavior of others is that they focus far too much on what happens before the behavior. They spend hours in training, coaching, writing SOP’s, and telling people what to do, which is a necessary component of behavior change, but far too often they miss the more impactful aspect of behavior change, which is what takes place after the behavior.
Think about when you were a child and had to do “chores”. Mom or dad told you to clean your room, which may or may not have led to doing it, but if you did complete the task the reward you received (i.e. allowance, ice cream, etc.) was more likely to get you to repeat the behavior than just simple direction on what and how to do it.
I would argue, and the behavior science research supports my argument, it’s no different in the world of business. Your chores now are the job duties you are hired to complete, and one of the rewards is the paycheck you receive for doing the work. What I’m getting at here is that what happens after the behavior takes place has a much higher effect on the person repeating the behavior than what happens before the behavior.
Let’s put this into more practical terms of how to drive behavior change. Before focusing on the rewards component of behavior change let’s make sure you have the necessary elements to set the stage for the desired behavior by asking three simple questions.
1. Do they know what to do? This might seem like a no-brainer, but just asking the question ensures the expectation has been set. You wouldn’t believe how many times this one step is all that is needed to change behavior. Have you ever told someone they were doing something incorrectly to which they replied, “I didn’t know that’s what you wanted.”?
2. Do they know how to do it? You can’t tell someone to do something and then just miraculously expect it to happen. This is where training and education play a big part in setting the stage for behavior change. Show them how to do it before asking them to do it.
3. Can they do it? Not everyone has the ability to do all things. Have you ever watched American Idol? Some of those contestants actually think they can sing, but not everyone has a voice for singing! It’s no different in business. Some of us are gifted speakers, others are great at analyzing data-we all have talents to use in helping achieve our personal and organizational goals. The best test here is to have them demonstrate they can do it.
Assuming those you are helping change know what to do, how to do it, and can do it, now it’s simply a matter of providing some reinforcement that fuels their want to do it, which leads to a fourth question.
4. Do they want to do it? This is where positive reinforcement (rewards) comes into play when changing behavior. I suggest checking off “yes” to the previous three questions (they are usually the easiest issues to address) before addressing the motivation issue. No amount of positive reinforcement will make you into an American Idol if you have the voice of a broken chainsaw!
Not everyone views positive reinforcement the same. For example, many of the hourly workers I have had as team members hate being recognized in public, but when I was a welder many years ago and working on the production line I loved public praise. The problem with not understanding each individual’s preferred way of being recognized is that when you praise them in the wrong way you are likely to get just the opposite of what you desire. Praising those hourly workers the way I like to be praised will almost guarantee they will never demonstrate the behavior that led to that praise again just to avoid being called out in front of their peers.
This is something all great leaders know about their people. In other words, they play chess with their people instead of checkers. If you compare the two games you’ll see that all the pieces in the game of checkers are the same, whereas in the game of chess each piece plays a unique role. People are no different. There are not two of us that are identical in most organizations.
One of the simplest tools I’ve used to play better “chess” with those I’m helping change behavior is a 3 x 5 card as shown below. All you need to do is write your name on the card and list the ways in which you like to be recognized and praised when you do something good. This card can then be copied and shared with everyone you work with so that everyone knows the best way to keep you doing great work. You could also share this with your family as a way to sustain desired behaviors.
One final suggestion I’ll leave you with is that the timeliness and certainty of the reinforcement happening after the positive behavior are critical to repeating it. Think of how likely you are to repeat a behavior your boss compliments you on months after the behavior took place. This is one of the best cases for why performance reviews on an annual basis have little impact on changing behavior. The second you see someone doing something great provide the reinforcement instantly!
In summary, if the people you want to drive behavior change in know what to do, how to do it, can do it, and want to do it, followed by you reinforcing the behavior in a way they find positive that happens immediately while the behavior is taking place or shortly after it, and the person performing the behavior knows for certain the reinforcement is coming, sustainable behavior change is possible – give it a try!