Organizational change rests, in part, on the ability to change behavior. It requires shifting accustomed ways of working to operate in new ways that may at first seem counterintuitive. For change to take root, you must overcome patterns that pull people back to the familiar and comfortable; one of the best ways to support new patterns is to provide positive reinforcement. That is why Reinforcement plays such a large role in Peak Development’s CLEAR Model of Change©. By rewarding the new behaviors necessary for change, you are making it more likely that those behaviors will continue. You are building new habits that, with time and perseverance, become the new norm.
Sometimes, the new behaviors needed to support your strategy are clear and straightforward—like adopting a new technology platform or a new process. Other times they’re harder to recognize or quantify—like building an entrepreneurial spirit or increasing collaboration. Whatever the behavior, you can’t reinforce it if you can’t name it. In the design phase, take the time to achieve clarity and build alignment around the behaviors needed, because they are essential for your change to become sustainable.
While identifying the behaviors you want to reinforce is important, how those behaviors are rewarded is of equal importance: the more effective the reward, the more quickly the new behavior will take root. Leaders should consider which mix of formal and informal rewards best meets their needs.
In many organizations, the most visible rewards systems are the formal ones: the performance management system and the corporate awards program. If your company uses such processes, make sure the behaviors you’re cultivating are included in them. However, they should by no means be your only avenue for reinforcement, as formal processes tend to focus only periodic attention on the necessary behaviors.
In my experience, change is more expedient when leaders weight their efforts toward personal, informal methods like leadership recognition, peer rewards, and simple thank yous. In Peak Development’s study on Shaping Organizational Culture, study participants agreed that more personal recognition is most effective; their picks for the most effective methods of recognition, in order from most to least effective were:
- Recognition at an organization event
- Informal recognition by a manager
- Professional development opportunities
- Formal recognition from a manager
- Visibility with senior leaders
- Monetary rewards
- Celebrations/organization-sponsored social events
- Awards programs
- Recognition in a formal newsletter
People want to feel valued for the unique contribution they are making to the organization. Therefore, you’ll see the strongest return when you recognize your employees face-to-face and tailor rewards to the individual. You know your employees—and what motivates them—best. When you take the time—and it only takes a moment—to show that you value their contribution, the impact is profound and lasting.
Recognition is a continuous endeavor. Studies show that it can take anywhere from 2-8 months to build a new habit. Especially under stress—and change can be a significant source of stress—we quickly go back to old patterns because they provide a measure of comfort. When you consciously recognize the behaviors you want to reward, tailor rewards to the individual, and continue to reinforce behavior over time, you’re setting the stage for sustainable change.