After 30 years of applying behavioral principles and concepts to business and industry, I want to make some recommendations to anyone willing to listen. Granted, the origin of these suggestions is distributed between my personal experiences and information sharing with my colleagues and not “researched-based,” meaning I don’t have hard data to support some of my assertions. The comments made here are general in nature and I readily acknowledge there are some notable exceptions to them.
These observations directly relate to the rate that organizational behavior management (OBM) and behavior analysis are being assimilated into the cultural framework (operating beliefs, values, and assumptions) of our society. At this moment in history, I think the behavioral movement (OBM particularly) is only inching along, and popular books on rewards and recognition have managed to trivialize the notion of positive reinforcement. Recent books written on the subject, available at local bookstores, could be mistaken for texts written 25 years ago. It presents a well-known and ineffective methodology that is largely and deservedly ignored.
In Search of Credibility
Because of such texts, senior executives often dismiss OBM as a gimmick that is deployed opportunistically. The rule-driven approach, espoused and practiced by many OBM practitioners, encourages that perception. The impact of this rules-driven approach manifests itself in the devaluation of the individual employee and results in patronizing conversations in which “things” (reinforcers) are seen as drivers for the performance of employees. The practice evokes manipulative connotations, particularly to senior management who summarily categorize behavioral solution as “programs” for the lower echelon.
OBM consultants lose credibility in the “one-size-fits-all” application of OBM. $1,000,000 a year executives are asked to “shape the behavior” of their subordinates who are making $600,000 a year. Or, they are asked to do a performance improvement plan on each improvement opportunity for each subordinate. “I ain’t got the words,” as Wyatt Earp, said in Tombstone to express the riot of negative thoughts and emotions that hard-driven, exacting executives experience when they are encouraged to micromanage the company’s leadership. This is one of many dogma-driven tactics that encourages top executives to view OBM as simplistic, not to mention irrelevant to their problems.
Similarly, positive reinforcement has been neutralized through the “Lets teach them every detail of the science” approach. Here, I can speak with authority because I’ve taught over 50,000 managers and supervisors using the same formula. In the real world of work, this approach is usually ignored by upper management and detested by supervisors. Having to keep a “Reinforcement Log,” for example, to count the number of times one “recognizes an employee’s efforts,” adds to managerial angst and contributes to their avoidance of the consultant, and if at all possible, the technology as well.
In Search of Value
Another corroborating piece of information: In my 30 plus years in the business, I have direct or indirect knowledge of over 500 OBM implementations using the popular consulting model referred to here, and you can count on one hand the number of companies that are still doing it systematically--if at all. Yet, the formulaic, anachronistic model from the 70s is still doggedly being promoted with no data to support its long-range efficacy, and despite an overwhelming amount of data to suggest that it only has a short-term impact. Additionally, of the 10,000 plus senior executives exposed to the model, almost none have maintained the process as part of their corporate values or management systems.
Billions of dollars are spent on consulting in the U.S every year, and less than 1/1000 of 1 percent of those dollars are spent on OBM consulting. In short, we are not players in the big game. In fact, our profile is so low that we would have to raise ourselves up two notches to be categorized as non-existent. Cognitive psychologists are the players. They have translated their knowledge base into tools and language that can be understood and is therefore more easily marketed and sold.
Deconstruct the Old Model
Part of the solution is to unbundle behavioral methodology into its key component parts (behavioral tools) and delineate the applications and value of their respective contributions. Clarifying organizational performance language by operationalizing descriptors is a potential market that remains unexplored. For example, senior executives need coaching around the effects of their verbal behavior on employee emotions and job performance.
Job dissatisfaction and turnover are more often linked to manager-employee relations more than any other variable. The basis of that relationship is management’s verbal behavior. Managers who are disliked and resented by their subordinates are not going to solve performance problems by individual acts of positive reinforcement. Hence the normative and rule-driven fix being mechanistically installed in business and industry by OBM consultants is both ineffective and unethical. It is unethical, because in most cases, OBM is applied to employee behavior change within a process in which the employee is not a fully informed participant.
We need to present different models for OBM implementation and modify our verbal behavior to present our methodology in the current business vernacular. We need to communicate to our customers in a language that they can understand.
Create a New Persona
Several years ago, Dr. Phil McGraw, of Oprah Winfrey fame, came out with a best-selling book, Life Strategies. At the time, I pointed out to my colleagues that he had translated behavioral theory into a language that connected with the average person. He talked about arranging the environment so that you did the things that were in support of your life goals. Just one example: If you drink too much and want to become a non-drinker, you must stay away from bars and social events where drinking is the focus of activity. Remove alcohol from your house. And change your friends, unless they support (read reinforce) your abstinence.
Today, he continues to talk about antecedents and consequences without using those exact words. Had the OBM community been diligent about marketing its technology at a universal level, had we created a cohesive business development strategy, then we could have recruited Dr. Phil to speak supportively, openly and directly about Behavior Analysis as the foundation of his popularized message.
One of the best executive coaches in America begins by telling his clients, “If you don’t want to be perceived by your subordinates as an asshole, don’t act like one. Change what you say and do tomorrow, and they will slowly change their perception of you.” In short, you are your behavior. Who you are is a function of what you do…how you act. You are in charge of your life’s destiny. You want to be a better person? Then act like a better person. We need to start cultivating those individuals who will step up to the plate and translate the behavioral position into The 7 Behaviors of Successful Executives, or How to Behave Your Way to Success.
Among behavior analysts, this suggestion immediately brings up issues of determinism and individual responsibility --endless point and counterpoint. As the character Alfie said in the movie of the same name, “H’it puts me off me provender.” And the same is true of most of the audience of OBM methodology, which turns en masse to listen to a cognitive psychologist who can enrich their understanding about why men act like men and women act like women.
Behaviorists are uncomfortable creating descriptors that reference patterns or classes of behavior; that provide metaphors and analogues that make the behavioral perspective accessible to the market. However, if the descriptors are carefully selected, they can create excitement and interest. Men Behave Like They Are from Mars and Women Behave Like They Are from Venus…another opportunity missed.
Develop a New Strategy
I believe it is in the best interest of OBM and the larger community of behavior analysts that a task group be formed composed of practitioners and academics. Their mission would be to popularize the systematic analysis of behavior in organizational settings. To do this will require the marketing of behaviorism, an effort that may require its initial deconstruction and reinvention complete with an attractive lexicon for purposes of cultural transmission. This marketing effort would create a new vernacular that describes the problems and solutions to organizational performance problems in a compelling and thought provoking manner, one in which no one mentions therapy, rats or pigeons.
I suggest that we create more structure and strategy behind the promotion of Behavior Analysis and establish it’s branding as an important component in understanding and solving business problems. We must untangle boilerplate methodology into behavioral tools like operationalizing, behavior measurement, behavioral feedback and positive reinforcement and use them selectively on an as-needed basis. For example, behavior-based safety (BBS) emerged as a product 15 years ago. Thousands of companies worldwide have implemented BBS, providing mountains of data supporting its efficiency. Corporations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars implementing and maintaining this process, and it has introduced the word behavior into the vocabulary of business and industry.
A behavior-based safety process does not attempt to teach the organization about the science of Behavior Analysis. It simply incorporates a few of its components within a well-structured process that integrates features of continuous improvement and employee involvement. This process and its widespread acceptance have opened a window of opportunity to market and sell OBM. History shows that we may survive at status quo, but in order to thrive behaviorism must be sold.
The Next Step
It’s time to pull together the many OBM consultants and Behavior Analysts and reach an accord on the future. The academic community must reach out to OBM practitioners and marketeers and collaboratively re-present the relevance and functionality of behavioral solutions to the marketplace.
If OBM were my business, I would look at the last 30 years and acknowledge a dissatisfactory growth curve. I would consider it a failed business and pull together the resources to reconceptualize and transform the business and its future.
The situation requires a can-do attitude with action-oriented support. OBM should be considered one notch higher on the business solutions scale than Six Sigma. Yet currently, OBM is not even in the game, much less on the playing field. I propose that we organize to confront that challenge and move forward decisively to transform the image and branding of OBM. After all, if we insist on intellectual exclusivity, then we must ultimately settle for obscurity.