July 8th, 2012
In The Perfected Self, Atlantic Monthly contributor David H. Freedman shows how some new smartphone apps are helping people change seemingly intractable habits in order to, for example, lose and keep off weight. The piece is mainly about two things: (1) the tacit vindication over time of B.F. Skinner’s once controversial (and poorly understood) behavior modification principles, and (2) the successful harnessing of those principles into some pretty cool high-tech data collection and feedback tools.
While the part about the apps is compelling in its own right, it’s the Skinnerian approach to behavior change that I’m pondering here. Could a simple element – the support group – help senior leaders adopt new behaviors?
A Skinner Refresher:
Skinner sought to change behavior through positive reinforcement, mostly with animals. As applied to people, we act to earn a reward. When prompted to exhibit a behavior and it is reinforced, we’re apt to repeat it. Repeated enough times it becomes a habit, occasionally needing reinforcement.
Weight Watchers and some of the new smartphone apps Freedman tells us about follow, more or less, the same formula. The person setting out to change behavior, i.e., the dieter:
1. Sets modest goals;
2. Rigorously tracks behavior;
3. Obtains counseling or coaching; and
4. Turns to fellow participants for support.
These basic, straightforward components, whether face-to-face or administered remotely, have been delivering consistent, lasting results. I wonder if more consistent and more lasting than executive coaching.
The Recidivism Dilemma:
Executive coaching’s limitations are evident in the rate of backsliding after engagements close. Simply put, some senior leaders, with their coach’s visits fading in the rearview mirror, revert to their older, less effective behaviors. Moreover, the shorter the engagement, the surer the reversion. Ten years ago six to twelve-month engagements were the norm. Today, many clients tell you to get it done in four to six. I feel for them; internal Executive Resources professionals are in a difficult spot. On the one hand, they need to demonstrate expense control and protect engagements from mission creep. On the other hand, most senior level coaching gigs tackle issues that may be as tricky and fraught as real, lasting weight loss. Here are a few common behavior patterns an exec may exhibit:
- Influences through intimidation;
- Jumps into solution too quickly and digs in;
- Too high level and struggles to implement;
- Too into the weeds and not strategic enough;
- Doesn’t set clear expectations; and/or
- Doesn’t develop or performance manage the team
These behaviors take time to unpack and rewire. It’s not like flipping a switch.
While approaches to coaching are varied, most begin with some type of baseline assessment (e.g., a “360”) and then track the first three Skinner steps. Coach and coachee set development objectives, monitor the coachee’s behavior and meet regularly for coaching support. It’s the fourth step – turning to fellow participants for support – that is not found in the typical coaching gig. Yet, in reading Freedman, it might just be that a support group is the pivotal mechanism of reinforcement responsible for lasting behavior change.
A Crazy Idea?
The idea of submitting a C-Suite exec to a support group seems, at first blush, almost absurd. First, it’s distinctly possible the exec is tackling issues difficult to speak about publicly, like those I mentioned earlier. It’s one thing to disclose you feel badly for indulging in a rich dessert. It’s quite another to sit around with others and admit to publicly berating a colleague. Second, it’s probably tough to find others similarly situated with precisely the same presenting issues. Lots of people want to lose weight. How many, for example, are EVP Pharmaceutical execs working on being more risk-embracing?
A Comparable Precedent?
The multitude of affinity groups serving business people here and globally suggests there may be an opening for the support group I’m describing. UK author and coach Rosie Miller runs peer groups of senior high-caliber women from different organizations who meet to discuss business challenges they share. Sweden’s Dag Roslund convenes “power groups” to share managerial, relationship-building and work/life balance goals. In Austria, Claudia von der Linden assembles women at key steps of their careers to consider phase-relevant issues.
These popular programs address the intersection of professional development and network-building, as opposed to the behavioral support group I’m proposing here. And yet, their success evinces a predisposition among business people to seek a group setting in which to accomplish individual objectives. Right?
A Promising Sign:
The other day, I ran the idea of a behavior-specific support group by an exec I began to coach after she received some pretty tough feedback. I expected her to glare at me with incredulity. Instead, she said she loved the idea.
Let’s see where this goes.