Survivor: Feeding the Fire

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:

  • Estimate how much reinforcement is needed – Identify the expected frequency of the behavior and the likely natural positive and negative consequences for doing it. If there are natural negative consequences such as extra time and effort required for the behavior but no natural positive consequences, the behavior will need increased feedback and reinforcement.
  • Expand the sources of reinforcement – Help the performers see the positive outcomes of the new behavior so that it becomes more naturally reinforcing. Prompt others (peers, other managers) to ask about and reinforce the behavior. Adjust performance measures as needed to align with the new expectations. Whenever possible, avoid relying solely on your social reinforcement to keep the behavior going.
  • Build habit strength – Provide frequent positive reinforcement until the behavior reaches habit strength. Behavior at habit strength is able to withstand delays in reinforcement and can persist even when reinforcement is available for competing behaviors. The rate of change in behavior is directly related to the rate of reinforcement for that behavior, so the more positive reinforcement in the early stages, the better.
  • Thin the reinforcement schedule – Gradually reduce the frequency of social reinforcement so the behavior does not become dependent on high levels of that reinforcement. Then maintain the behavior through intermittent reinforcement. Monitor the behavior to ensure that it sustains at the desired rate and consistency.

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.


Posted by Tom Spencer, Ph.D.

As President and CEO, Tom actively works with ADI staff and clients to create positive change and achieve desired business goals. For nearly 25 years, his experience and ideas have shaped pragmatic and integrated approaches to applying the science of behavior to the workplace. Tom has written extensively on topics related to leadership, consequence management, performance fluency, and technology development. When not leading ADI, Tom enjoys trail running and following the WVU Mountaineers.