Operant Conditioning at the workplace: Habits that Stick!!
When all else fails, we go back to Operant Conditioning to train our mind, our body, and our environment!! Operant conditioning is a principle to strengthen behaviour (or habits) by modifying the consequences or responses to the same from the environment – typically with punishment or with reward. Covid-19 has brought to the forefront, the need to unlearn and relearn, to let go off what was known and to become capable of traversing through the unknown. New skills and habits were nonetheless needed to cope through the crisis that we faced. We saw a rise and plateau and an eventual fall in many habits that shot up and then fell through. Some of these habits were extremely helpful for people and brought their focus back to what was really important. For example, the need to prioritize health and family, to stay safe and practice hygiene, to be grateful for what one has and how to be considerate for the other’s needs were some aspects that shone through at the beginning of the spread of Covid-19 and at the spread of lockdowns. However, gradually the caution fatigue took over and we became callous of our own health and towards the practices that were benefitting us.
If we take the same approach to change to our workplace, we will notice that when the iron is hot, a lot of change in behaviour and practice are visible. But when the crisis passes by, learnt habits that seemed like the new ways to be and to behave tide over. Learning from this experience, we gather that its important to drive ourselves consciously back to the starting point which is significant for us at an individual and us at a team level. It is essential that we learn how to develop habits that stick. Here are some tips for the same:
- Doing what feels good, continuing to help oneself feel good: These seem like 2 sides of the same coin, but its important to address both these aspects. It is natural that one likes to do more of what one enjoys or for what one is appreciated. It could be as simple as eating one’s favourite food as it feels tasty or comfortable, and as complex as being biased in putting a team together by choosing mates that one is fonder of as that makes the work environment easier. When it comes to re-establishing some habits, allowing oneself to enjoy the new habits and the outcomes of the same is important. Whether it is about enjoying the active wear you have bought to exercise comfortably or to be able to fit into an older dress easily. It could be about enjoying connecting with the team online by sitting comfortably in your remote workstation or performing well to receive good visibility in team meetings. Keep an eye on both the aspects mentioned to be able to sustain behaviour change.
- Key into your environment by setting up feedback buddies: As much as we may resent the word feedback – thinking of it as a critical conversation, having people around us that let us know we are on track can be extremely helpful and self-reinforcing. While some people like to declare the changes, they will be making to have social pressures build conformity, some like to choose a selected trusted few who help keep one on track. Choose the same with caution understanding how you respond to feedback. Do you want to get it upon being asked or do you want the others to regularly let you know what is going well and what is not? The idea is to make the system work for you and for you to be sufficiently internally driven and externally motivated to keep going.
- Set up rewards to overcome obstacles: Most of the times we set rewards that are linked to the outcomes we want achieved. The most important thing to understand for behaviour change is that if the obstacles that prevent us from achieving behaviour change are not addressed then the change may not be sustainable. For example, instead of rewarding oneself for exercising every day, one must also look at rewarding oneself for overcoming bad sleep patterns which make daily exercise possible. Taking the same to the workplace, not just rewarding punctuality but helping oneself and others overcome a bad attitude of disrespecting time or making a habit of doing a tech run before a meeting to ensure on time start needs rewarding as well.
- Understand rewards from a big picture perspective: If we look at immediate rewards for each time, we do something appreciable, we may end up feeling mechanical or even like the lab rats who demonstrated the principle of operant conditioning in the first place! To avoid getting into that trap, we should look at how our personality gets modified through the new habits and how do people now see us with these changed habits. What are some of the changes that we attract now because of these habits? When these changes from a big picture perspective excite us and make us happy, the overall motivation to stick with the changes increases.
- Let your confidence be your reward: Many subtle changes happen which seem like a big deal for us, from our own perspective. These may not translate as big wins for others. Looking at your own self from a before and after perspective for both tangible and intangible wins will make you love and respect your own self more. It is one of the most difficult challenges to break free from known patterns both in the mind and in action. So, if you are able to move your thinking pattern from thinking, ‘I am not cut out for this’ or ‘This is my reality that I need to accept and live with’ to ‘I will strive to get what I want’ is a big win which will help you overcome the other obstacles that come in your way!
Reach out to our team of coaches to understand how you can bring in the change you want to see in yourself and your teams!
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Director of Leadership & Learning, Senior Consultant
PhD (Clinical Psychology), MA(Psychology)