Bark up a new tree for behavior change

by | Jul 16, 2014 | Blog | 0 comments

Barking up the treeDo you think behavior change is hard?

Many do.

And if you feel you’re spending a lifetime looking for effective ways to change behavior either yours or others’, you’re lookin’ in all the wrong places. (Yes, you can hum along to Johnny Lee in his classic country song for the movie Urban Cowboy.)

Stop searching for best change practices in the halls of corporations, consulting firms and universities.

Instead, bark up a new tree and spend time with addiction counselors and dog trainers.

Granted, these professionals may work well outside your comfort zone, especially in regard to organizational change.

However, addiction counselors and dog trainers have admirable track records for lasting behavior change.

While traditional organizations generally don’t hire addiction counselors and dog trainers, their methods can benefit organizations and their employees.

Think about it. Organizations change only when the individuals inside the organizations change their behavior.

Too often, organization leaders want to change by proclamation. They decree that it’s time to change, and therefore tell employees to start changing. There are very few methodical, integrated and disciplined actions that focus on individuals.

By contrast, addiction counselors and dog trainers adjust their proven change techniques to fit the individual situation and animal—either human or dog.

As someone who has done my fair share of dog training as well as studying Alcoholics Anonymous and applied neuroscience, I’ve found these five behavior change techniques to be especially engaging, humane and effective.

1. Emphasize action over talk. (Start now and practice in the moment. Don’t talk about making the new behavior a lifelong commitment. Dogs won’t understand, and many humans will panic.)

2. Start small and build. (Animal trainers call these approximations, doing tiny steps that build toward learning a new behavior.)

3. Make the new behavior as easy to do as possible. (This includes providing peer support.)

4. Provide immediate rewards for the right behaviors. (Celebrate small successes with a meaningful treat. Ignore other behaviors, unless egregious.)

5. Build new good behaviors rather than break bad behaviors. (Look for ways to build “incompatible behaviors” as the animal trainers call them. So rather than telling people to stop multi-tasking in meetings, make the meetings so engaging and involving that everyone wants to participate fully.)

If you think these suggestions are insulting, read “Managing Change, One Day at a Time” by Keith Ferrazzi in the July-August 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review. He describes point-by-point on how the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous can be easily adapted to support positive organizational change.

On the dog training front, check out Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor. It gives helpful insights into animal—and human—behavior.

And for a shorter read, look at “What Shamu Taught Me About as Happy Marriage,” by Amy Sutherland in The New York Times, one of the newspaper’s most popular “Modern Love” columns.

Back to the humans, BJ Fogg in his newest e-book, Designing for Lasting Behavior Change, explains the importance of taking tiny steps and shaping the environment.

It’s time to stop barking up the wrong tree regarding behavior change. We’ve got to recognize the enlightened approach in other fields—namely animal training and addiction treatment programs—that are personalized and compassionate yet disciplined.

Are you ready to start looking in better places to make change?


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