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Behavior Modification: What we can learn from our dogs

April 14, 2020
By Alita BlufordApril 14, 2020

Many frustrated Human Resource professionals neglect to utilize the easiest and most effective techniques in managing behavior issues in the workplace: natural logical consequences. The premise is quite simple, but we often tend to ‘overthink’ ways to change undesirable behavior. Typically, the first choice is punishment. On the positive side, punishment is quick, easy and often effective in the short term. On the negative side, it is fear-based and almost always damages the relationship between employees and management. It breeds a toxic corporate culture and predisposes an employee to voluntarily terminate their relationship with the manager and the company.

Behavior Modification from Feenix

I learned another way of behavior modification from a behavior modification therapist many years ago. He was a dog trainer who assisted me in modifying the behavior of a beautiful, very smart and stubborn golden retriever named Feenix. Prior to meeting this gentleman, I was a punishment purist. Every wrong act was punished. Period. Bob, the dog trainer, sold me on the idea that I needed to focus on ‘natural, logical’ consequences. For example, Feenix scratched at the door when he wanted to go out. It got our attention quickly. We yelled, scolded, jumped up immediately from whatever we were doing and of course opened the door to take him out. He had us trained well. He did his business with us saying ‘bad dog’ the entire time. Sometimes we even put him in his crate after coming inside. The door scratching didn’t stop, however. We thought we were discouraging his behavior by scolding. Turns out, the more energy that you give a behavior, the more it is reinforced. Negative or positive; it doesn’t matter. We, in fact, were confusing him by punishing and crating.

Behavior Modification - What can we learn from our dogs

In order for us to stop the scratching, we needed to set up the circumstances so that the natural logical consequences of door scratching is that the door does NOT open AND at the same time, allows the puppy to satisfy his need to relieve himself. 

Shaping New Behaviors

Shaping a new behavior requires these things: the foundation of a good relationship, time, talent, patience, and creativity. Good communication, ability to control emotions (frustration, anger) and empathy are also valuable skills. The goal is to reward desirable behavior and extinguish undesirable behavior. Consistency is key! Ignoring the scratching, providing a clear indication of our expectation and reinforcing it consistently is the path to effective behavior change.

These same principles can be applied in the workplace. It is, however, more complicated with adults and ensuring that the 6 pre-requisites are in place is a little more challenging. Additionally, a performance management program that both employees and managers feel is valuable must be in place. Lastly, a good relationship must exist between managers and employees. (Usually this means that good communication skills and processes are in place in the workplace.) 

Let’s look at a common behavior issue in the workplace...

Let’s look at a common behavior issue in the workplace. Tardiness. What are the natural logical consequences of a tardy arrival? Many workplaces have a punitive policy where 3 tardies add up to 1 unexcused absence. And 5 unexcused absences lead to probation, etc. A more effective approach is to examine your behavior when an employee arrives 15 minutes late for the 8:00 a.m. team meeting. Do you disrupt the meeting and review what happened prior to his arrival? Do you become angry? Make threats of consequences that are not followed through on? Is the employee held accountable for his deliverables that were due at 8:00? Is he allowed to turn them in anytime during the meeting? Does the team need to hear a long drawn out, yet hollow apology filled with lame excuses?

If this sounds like a great deal of work and you aren’t sure if you have the time or patience to affect a positive behavior change in your employees, know that you aren’t alone. It IS a lot of work, but results in re loyal employees that contribute to a positive culture and corporate profits. Punishment creates a fear based, toxic culture. To prevent these negative consequences; consider looking for contractors who are skilled in this area. Invest in working with a process improvement or human resource company so that you can focus on what you do well and allow a professional to handle this project. The improvement in increased desired employee behavior, profits and employee retention will make you glad that you did!

Stay tuned next month for more on behavior modification.


About Alita Bluford

Alita Bluford, MS, HROD, is a Senior Organizational Effectiveness Consultant and Corporate Trainer. She has over 27 years of experience in Human Resources and Development and believes that organizations can achieve their strategic goals and mission by leveraging effective human resource management. She is the author of “How to Keep Good Employees” and has created and delivered engaging and effective learning experiences in a variety of industries; both in the for profit and not for profit sectors.


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