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In the long-running TV reality series Survivor, starting and maintaining a fire has always been a fundamental and immediate need. Without the proper tools, merely generating a spark can be frustrating for the castaways. The spark must still be coaxed into a flame, and the flame developed into a roaring and sustainable fire. Once there is fire, castaways must carefully attend to it, occasionally adding fuel to keep it going. Neglect the fire? It’s sure to burn out. On the series, letting the fire extinguish is a tragic error and can even lead to being voted off the island. Like fire to Survivor castaways, behavior is the life force of an organization.
Building and maintaining a fire is analogous to shaping and maintaining behavior through positive reinforcement. New behavior can require vigilant caretakers providing frequent positive reinforcement to get the behavior going at a sustainable rate. Once the behavior is established, it still requires fuel—intermittent positive reinforcement—to keep it going. Without that reinforcement, the behavior will extinguish. While extinction (the absence of reinforcement for a previously reinforced behavior or “de-fueling the fire”) is sometimes deliberately used as a procedure to eliminate a nuisance behavior, unintentional extinction is much more prevalent. Organizations, managers, and peers sometimes ask for a new behavior, provide recognition for that behavior when it first occurs, and then move on to other priorities thinking that the behavior will continue on its own. Extinction of the behavior then occurs from neglect. This unintentional extinction can create a disengaged, compliance culture. Employees become shaped into “late adopters,” approaching every new request or initiative with a “this too will pass” mindset.
Process improvement initiatives at the organizational or department level typically fall victim to unintentional extinction. Streamlined processes are designed and communicated, but insufficient reinforcement is planned for the new behaviors. Employees initially comply with the changes, but quickly revert to old habits with long histories of reinforcement. The strategy might be well designed, but the strategy execution is left to chance. And even though the new process might be better for the department or the organization as a whole, if positive consequences for the performers are lacking, the new behaviors will not sustain. They will either extinguish, or managers will resort to negative reinforcement to maintain them at a minimum level.
To ensure that you build and sustain safe and profitable habits in your organization, follow these four tips:
When you identify and establish the behavior that your organization needs for success, protect your investment. Keep the reinforcement flowing until you build a sustainable habit, and then maintain that behavior with intermittent positive reinforcement. Just as it is in Survivor, sustaining the fire is essential for survival.
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