We can change undesirable behavior habits. The earlier we intervene, the greater the impact. This article describes the late neuroscientist Jeremy Richman’s journey of discovery about how to do this with violent behavioral habits and applies that to workplace habits.

At the September HATCH Experience, Jeremy took us through the data on violence. He noted that:

    • 50% of the world’s children will be victims of violence every year
    • The same is true for one-fifth of the developed world’s adults
    • In the USA a violent crime is committed every 27 seconds
    • There’s a suicide every 14 minutes
    • There’s a drug overdose death every 12 minutes

But, he explained, those are just numbers – until they’re not. On December 14, 2012, his daughter Avielle was one of the 20 children shot and killed at the Sandy Hook elementary school.

As a result of that, he left his corporate job and founded the Avielle Foundation to prevent violence and build compassion through neuroscience research, community engagement and education.

Through Jeremy’s work there he’s learned to talk about “brain health” instead of “mental illness.” This is about changing labels. As he described, you would say someone “has a broken leg.” You wouldn’t say they “are a broken leg.” The same should apply to brain health. We should say someone “has schizophrenia,” not they “are schizophrenic.”

Beyond that, he has worked to bridge the gap between brain chemistry and behavior. He’s learned about the advantages of early intervention to change habits. He explained that today’s prison corrections departments do anything but correct. More than 70% of adults released from prison end up back in prison within five years. Intervening with adults has limited impact.

On the other hand, intervening with juveniles can have meaningful results. Interventions there have dropped the repeat, or recidivism, rate to 35%.

Of course, the best option is for families to teach their children good habits. The recidivism rate for people who never go to prison is 0%.

The earlier we intervene, the greater the impact.


Changing undesirable behavior habits at work

The pattern holds at work as well. The earlier we intervene, the greater the impact.

Michael Brown’s ABCs of behavior modification provide a framework to follow. ABC stands for Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence. People do things because an antecedent prompts that behavior. They do it again because of the balance of consequences: rewarding or punishing desirable or undesirable behavior.

It’s often hard to modify existing patterns of behavior because those habits have been reinforced by a poor balance of consequences. Witness film producer Harvey Weinstein’s long history with the casting couch. The positive consequences of his behavior were immediate gratification and successful films. Why would he change?

Obviously, that’s an extreme example. But it’s almost guaranteed that people in your organization who persist in doing things you don’t want them to do are having their behavior positively reinforced. If, as another example, employees habitually show up late for meetings, that behavior is likely positively reinforced by avoiding the negative consequence of wasting time for the few that do show up on time.

If you want to change undesirable behavior habits, change the balance of consequences. Make sure you are:

  • Positively reinforcing desired behavior
  • Punishing undesirable behavior.

Change the way you:

  • Positively reinforce undesirable behavior
  • Punish desired behavior

Just as the best way to eliminate recidivism in prison is to keep people from doing things that would land them in prison in the first place, the best way to eliminate undesirable behavior is to make sure it never happens to start with. This is about antecedents and prompting the right behaviors.

This is one more argument for why you should pay attention to your executive onboarding. Onboarding is the process of acquiring, accommodating, assimilating and accelerating new team members. You prompt future behaviors at every step.

  • Acquire: The way you recruit, select and get people to join models future behavior.
  • Accommodate: The tools you give new people guide future behavior.
  • Assimilate: The way you introduce people to each other prompts future behavior.
  • Accelerate: The help you give new executives to accelerate progress reinforces behavior.

This is why it’s so important to clarify your desired culture and reinforce it with the antecedents and consequences of behavior starting with how you onboard new people.