Reinforcing behavior without dependence
I’ve written quite a bit about the critical role that the organizational environment, and specifically, its processes and structures play in driving behavior change, and reinforcing the culture.
Recently, I came across an interesting edge case that I’m not sure how to solve yet. I hope that a clearer articulation here, and any dialogue that may ensue as a result, may help shed some more light on the shape of the potential solutions.
It happens when the behavior that we want to reinforce becomes dependent on the structure that we’ve put in place. Let me give a couple of examples.
- Situation: we want our team to take time off to celebrate holidays that are important to them. → Solution: we identify a subset of the holidays that most team members view as important and make them “official company holidays” → Complication: people take the company holidays but are more reluctant to take other holidays off assuming that if they are not company holidays, they are not important enough to justify taking time off for them.
- Situations: we want our team to take time off when they are dealing with distressing events in their lives. → Solution: when events that are broadly distressing take place (let’s say, a national tragedy), we remind and encourage our team to take time off if they need to. → Complication: team members use the company-wide communication as a barometer for which events are distressing enough to justify taking time off. If we haven’t communicated about it, it must not be distressing enough to justify.
I’m not sure that there’s a broader pattern here, given that the two examples that are more present for me are focused on taking time off work. Or perhaps the complications are not as common as I believe them to be. Nonetheless, these examples raise a question with broader applicability:
How do we design structures that are less likely to generate behavioral dependency?
The best metaphor that I was able to come up with is the difference between scaffoldings and shoes. Both are structures that we commonly use. Scaffoldings are temporary: when we remove them, the building, in its new form stands freely on its own. Whereas shoes, in some way weaken us. While they allow us to traverse challenging surfaces with more ease, once we remove them, our ability to traverse more standard surfaces on our own diminishes, compared to someone who’s been walking barefoot their entire life.