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POSITIVE SAFETY CULTURES: Can people really change?

June 3, 2010
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Say a new leadership team in an organization is not working well internally. There are turf wars, unhealthy caution and withholding of information instead of openness, and a prevailing lack of mutual trust and support. The consultant brought in to do “teambuilding” hopes and intends to help the team cope more effectively — to change people’s behavior and attitude, from maladaptive and personally and organizationally distressing, to more healthy and positive.

But can they get there from here? Can people really change, and make it last?

My short answer is “yes, people really can change, and make it stick.” But I will also admit that change, especially when it is major change, often does not come easily.

Yes, you can change those stripes. But will those new stripes last?

Comfort zones

There are many comfortable ways for us to feel and act. Most of us wouldn’t change those comfortable ways unless we personally embraced the idea that we either simply had to, or for some reason we chose to ourselves.

Change imposed from the outside usually does breed resistance, which can be very hard (though not impossible) to overcome.

In general, we are most willing to change when we can personally see and accept a driving need, when there is some overall goal we want and need to get to (and the change will take us there), and when the immediate steps to take are clear. When those conditions are fulfilled, all but the most rigid among us are able and willing to “do it differently”.

But experts have noted for many years the hardest part of change is not making it — it is making it stick. Diet and exercise programs, smoking cessation programs, etc., even when launched with great enthusiasm, often yield only transient change. Safety programs all too often fade when the banners and posters are taken down and the next “new direction” is launched.

How to make change durable? There are no surefire recipes — too many variables affect it — but there are strategies to make it endure. Here are five of the central ones:

1) Go public with the commitment — the buddy system works. Social support is one of the most potent mechanisms for sustaining a change. Let others know what you are working on, and how they can help. The public declaration helps you use all your resources, internal and external, to build support and momentum from all directions. Broadcast it.

2) Give it time — there are many estimates of how long it takes to break an old habit, and truly replace it with a new one. None of the estimates is “instantaneous.” Behavior change is more a growth process than the flick of a switch. Expect it to be a journey, with forward progress sometimes coming very slowly.

3) Track results — a core principle of behavioral science is “what gets measured gets attended to.” Highlight and focus on your progress by charting it regularly. If/when the curve starts going flat or in the wrong direction, call on all those internal and external resources to get it righted.

4) Reward yourself for improvement — another core principle of behavioral science is what gets rewarded gets strengthened. Indeed, it is a centerpiece of behavioral psychology that positive reinforcement “works.” There is much debate in the research literature about the effectiveness of money as a motivator (believe it or not), but we do know that money is not the only reward.

5) When you relapse, don’t throw in the towel — so you had a bad day; get back on track. Charting your progress will reveal that durable change is not always, in fact not usually, a “linear process.” While there are steps forward, there are also “steps to the side,” and sometimes “steps backward.” This is a predictable part of the change process. The central idea of effective relapse prevention programs is not to interpret a relapse as the end of the program. It is a blip. The program restarts today.

Change is hard, yet people can change, and the change can stick. With a better understanding of how the change process works, we can become more effective at self-management and personal change. We can be more effective in our change-management roles at work, helping others make constructive and durable change, and helping ultimately to build more positive cultures.

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