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The Simplest Algorithm

Since 1971, I’ve tried to transfer behavior management skills to supervisors, managers and leaders.Like my OBM practitioner colleagues, I attempted to impart principles and encourage managers to apply those principles to manage employee behavior.

I have no accurate data about how many managers actually used the principles and practices I strove so ardently to teach.Tens of thousands of managers were trained, but I would guess that less than 20% actually used the principles effectively—in spite of the fact that many received upwards of 3 full days of training.

I think I went about it the wrong way—it had nothing to do with the intelligence of the managers and supervisors I attempted to train.Granted, many were jaded by the many “motivational” programs their management had purchased and tried--programs that had failed for lack of support…or commitment…or because the methods were just too nonsensical to garner their respect.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting about the uselessness of trying to teach every manager or supervisor behavior analysis.I developed and taught a 5 day workshop called “Advanced Pinpointing and Measurement” to participants who had already taken a 3 day class in behavior analysis.At the end of that class, some people still could not discriminate between a behavior and a non-behavior. I'm not that bad an instructor...really.

All my peers did the same thing and I think that one reason ABA and OBM are generally unknown and overlooked is because of this fixation with “teaching the science.”One thing I heard over and over again from supervisors and managers was, “I don’t need to know why, just tell me what you want me to do.”My colleagues reported the same response.

Managers and supervisors don't want theory—they want tactics.Their attitude was, “provide me with an effective tactic and I will use it.”This line of thought led me to remember the approach we used to teach clinical associates to work with patients at the GeorgiaRegionalHospital in Atlanta.

In 1971, I worked at the GeorgiaRegionalHospital—a 500 bed psychiatric hospital run completely using behavior modification (behavior management, ABA).We had several units and worked with juveniles, geriatrics, psychotics, neurotics, long term and crisis intervention patients.There were a few psychologists, doctors, nurses, sociologist, chaplains, and legions of clinical associates.

The clinical associates were hourly workers—poorly paid.Some of us were working our way through college—others were high school kids—just doing a job.We were from every walk of life.There were men 50 years old men working alongside 18 year old kids (I was 26) making a dollar an hour.But, we successfully executed treatment plans and got patients back on the street—back in jobs and back into the community with their families and friends.We had the best recidivism rate in the state.

How did we teach high school kids making a dollar an hour how to change and manage behavior?Why were we so successful in the hospital; successful at communicating the message?Before we received any training, all of us could identify a behavior and knew what to do to increase the right behavior and decrease the wrong behavior.And, we worked for the state government, so nobody expected us to be effective in our jobs.

Here is the trick;we started out showing new employees the treatment plan; here is Mr. Jones token card.He is depressed and too anxious to hold down a job or socialize.The treatment plan includes the behaviors we need to reinforce him for—the behaviors we need to extinguish and the behaviors that he needs to become a productive person outside the hospital.

We would give a patient a token (put a check on their treatment card) if they exhibited a behavior on their treatment card.The behaviors were not secret; the patients saw their treatment cards and they knew which behaviors would earn them tokens.The tokens could be exchanged at the token store for cigarettes, candy, trips to the mall and so forth.

The behaviors on the card were customized for each patient.Everyone on staff participated in developing the treatment cards and changing them in accord with the patient’s progress.

Mr. Jones might have the following behaviors on his plan:

  • Leave your room and sit in the living area (where patients assembled to chat and watch TV).
  • Smile at another patient or staff
  • Say something to another patient or staff
  • Say several sentences to another patient or staff (working toward a conversation)
  • Get up on time and come into the eating area to have breakfast
  • Sit at the table with other patients
  • Take your tray to the disposal area
  • Arrive on time for your group therapy
  • Clean and organize your room (could be broken down further)
  • Make your bed
  • Take a shower
  • Attend recreational therapy
  • Make a comment in your group therapy session

You get the idea.All the treatment plans were different, depending on the patient’s symptoms.

The important thing to note here is that we never had a problem with clinical associates not knowing how to recognize a behavior.“Mr. Jones, I saw you walk up to Mrs. Fielding and ask her how she was doing this morning.Hand me your treatment plan so I can check off this behavior.You have earned a token.”

Clinical associates that were high school drop outs could learn in a couple of hours how to identify a behavior and how to reinforce the right behavior and punish the wrong behavior (tokens could be taken away for rules infractions and disruptive behavior).They also learned very quickly how inappropriate behaviors were reinforced by the environment and how desired behaviors could be inadvertently punished—unless the environment was managed.

I think this is the way we need to begin with managers and supervisors—with frontline employees who are participating in our OBM implementation process; get everyone involved immediately in executing a behavior management plan.Identify behaviors that will help achieve improvement goals; identify behaviors that are problematic.Identify consequences that are interfering with performance objectives.You can teach them their ABCs later; they may never need to know about compound-complex schedules of reinforcement.

Teach them theory and principle later—if and when appropriate.Train them as they encounter real world problems; expose them to principles and practices that will help them over hurdles.Start the OBM implementation with consulting and coaching not training.Get people involved; make it relevant to them.Create a context in which they ask for more understanding—more tools to help them.

We don’t need to train behavior analysts; we need to coach people in how to manage behavior in their world.