In the wake of organizational change employees must alter their behavior so that they may perform new tasks, meet new requirements and standards, or to drive new outcomes. In short, change. But, even with a strong competency plan that will help them develop skills, both quick adoption and sustained behavior change can be difficult to achieve. I believe a thoughtful and aligned approach to reinforcing behavior may help your workforce adopt and sustain the right behaviors saving time and money and improving the probability of success.

Reinforcement, simply stated, is putting in place something that will reinforce the likelihood that a behavior is performed again. Reinforcement often gets a bad name because people automatically associate it with punishment, manipulation or repetition. However, a more positive application of reinforcement should also get the credit for flexible work schedules, fulfilling job design, or creative compensation practices. We reward stellar employees with a variety of things from higher pay, to more discretionary research time, to more fulfilling job responsibilities.

Reinforcing behaviors can be done to positively reward and encourage or to negatively influence and extinguish behavior, but there is nothing inherently evil about reinforcing or rewarding behavior. We do it all the time whether we are conscious of it or not – frowning when we hear something displeasing, smiling at something we like for example. Our plea, for change initiatives, is to be conscious and thoughtful about what we reward.

Reinforcement is possibly the most overlooked and misunderstood element of creating change in organizations. There are many practical theories and notable authors in this space, but sorting through all of that material can be complicated. There is no single, right approach, but a thoughtful plan is crucial for any company that is trying to change. Let me provide a few examples:

Making Changes that Make Sense

About 20 years ago I worked with a large networking company who wanted to create a customized content management system. This was before there were content management systems. The benefit for the company was that they would be able to have an archive of all marketing materials, with a single source of truth. An additional benefit was that website content could be changed by simply changing the text in the document, thereby eliminating the bottleneck of waiting for a Web person to code the change. It was a great win for the company but it would mean a completely different way of doing things for employees. The new process would require more discipline and using tools that nobody had experience with. To help the change, the company made sure to clearly identify content ownership, something that marketing wanted. They also allowed marketing to control the release of information, something else they had been seeking. By making these small additions to the project the implementation went much easier. There was great motivation to get the project implemented. It turned out to be a great success.

Why Good Ideas Fail

During the same timeframe, I also worked with a large multi-national company on some major process changes. The process for design – fulfillment had become fraught with inconsistencies and they wanted to standardize the way work got done and provide transparency to the process. Unfortunately, as they engaged the key stakeholder groups, the underlying message that was conveyed was to “get in line” or there would be consequences. Even when stakeholders tried to voice concerns, they were reminded of the potential punishment for not doing what they were told. People did what they were told, they kept their concerns and therefore much of the information critical to mitigating risks all bottled up. When the new process went live, it failed and the project’s leadership was shocked, but it was no surprise to most in the company. In a twist of fate, the project leaders had plenty of time to think about it when the client invited them to leave. We must be careful what we reinforce and how we do it, because it sends a message.

Understanding your Stakeholders or Know What is at Stake

In order to put together a thoughtful set of behavior incentives, I’ve provided some ideas to consider:

  • Keep reinforcement or incentives as simple as possible. This means focus on the few, most critical behaviors that drive success or value and make the behaviors very clear and observable to ensure people understand what you are asking them to do.
  • Use natural incentives whenever possible. Natural incentives are those rewards that “naturally” line up with an action. For example, a change that makes somebody’s job easier, naturally reinforces them moving toward that change.
  • Be careful about using negative reinforcement, punishment, or fear. Studies show that these incentives may change a behavior quickly, but they also breed resentment, hostility both against the person that administers the punishment and the company.
  • Often the most powerful incentives are not monetary. For executives, there may be a monetary component, but social science and even recent studies in neurological science indicate that social, non-cash incentives can be the most powerful.
  • Part of making incentives work is making sure people have the right expectations. Overly hyped incentives will be negatively reinforced if they don’t live up to expectations. The same is true with initiative communications. If the change is presented as easy and, in fact, it turns out to be difficult, employees feel tricked for paying attention. Again, negatively reinforced, causing them to listen less to future communications.
  • In establishing a case for change, don’t be short-sighted and believe that company ROI is a compelling incentive for employees. Each change must make sense to the organization, but there must also be a compelling case for change for the individual. Without a compelling personal case for change, projects will face a much more difficult implementation and work harder to achieve sustainable change.
  • Make sure your change management professionals understand the behavioral side of change – the need for reinforcement, antecedents and consequences. Without this understanding they will miss big opportunities to help the organization achieve change.
  • Monetary or piece work incentives have proven effective on very basic and somewhat repetitive tasks. Monetary incentives for creative or complex work has shown little promise. Social reinforcement in the form of additional free time, recognition, additional responsibility proves to be much more effective at reinforcing desired outcomes.

Reinforcement is a powerful principle that can help encourage desired behaviors. It is a “must have” for any change practitioner and an important component of any change initiative. How we respond to questions, what we share, who we recognize, and even how we listen to somebody provides reinforcement. So, what are you reinforcing on your change effort? Could a thoughtful review of reinforcements make the implementation more successful? It would be good to know!

We’re Expressworks. Change is inevitable, but results are intentional! Let us help.

If you’d like to learn more, check out the remaining 7 best practices of change: SponsorshipPlanning and ModificationCompetency Development, EngagementCommunication, Measurement, and Clear Direction.