Making Change Stick

One of the greatest challenges inherent in any change initiative is making sure that new behaviors stick. It is easy fall back into old familiar habits once management focus shifts away from the change initiative and on to other things. What is not as clear is why, after weeks, or even months, of doing things differently, these newly established patterns can be knocked off track allowing old habits resurface.

It Takes Time to Replace Old Behaviors

They say it takes about 21 consecutive days to form a new habit. But it takes only a moment to break a new habit and revert to the old way of doing things (as anyone who has quit smoking will tell you!). So what can we do to make sure that the new behaviors stick around long enough to become second nature: long enough to gain the same level of familiarity and comfort that the old habits provided?

Flickr/Michelle McDonough

Behavior modification is an area of study that has fascinated psychologists for a long time. From the early experiments of Pavlov, who trained dogs to respond to the sound of a bell as an indicator of food; and those of B.F. Skinner, who motivated rats to complete a maze by rewarding them with corn at the end; to current theories on parenting; one constant factor throughout has been positive reinforcement. When attempting to modify behavior, the one practice that has produced long term results with any degree of consistency (without creating negative side effects) is positive reinforcement of desired behaviors.

Watch for Change Contradictors

This means that an organization must look closely at which behaviors are being supported and rewarded at all levels, to make sure there are no contradictions preventing the new behavior from being fully adopted.

For example, consider a sales organization that mandates a new team selling approach with much fanfare and excitement.

  • The company declares its commitment to team selling and creates teams with a good balance of experienced and junior salespeople.
  • They share their rationale for the change, including a strong business case for making the change.
  • Managers take the time to listen and respond to everyone's concerns and they provide the necessary training for the switch.
  • The company even introduces a new team-based bonus to supplement the existing individual performance bonus and individual sales tracking to qualify for annual conventions.

Although this organization has done many things right in managing this significant change, their team selling initiative is unlikely to succeed. They have introduced a team bonus to reinforce the behavior they want—but it directly contradicts the individual bonus and existing sales tracking mechanisms.

Reinforce the New – Stop Reinforcing the Old

While reinforcement of desired behaviors is necessary to create change, faced with conflicting reinforcement people will revert to what is comfortable and familiar.

It’s not enough to provide positive reinforcement of desired behaviors. We must also stop rewarding behaviors that conflict with the outcomes we hope to achieve.

Hold Your Course to Sustain the Change

Clear, consistent, positive reinforcement of desired behaviors is the best way to effect a change in the way people do things. To sustain that change, we have to make sure that positive reinforcement of the new habit continues long after the initial change has been fully implemented.

In fact, we must continue to reinforce the new habit until it becomes easier, more familiar and more comfortable than the old way of doing things. Otherwise, at the first difficulty, source of frustration, or indication that no one is watching, many people will slide back into those comfortable old habits.


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