Leading change in large organizations is hard. Having active and visible participation from competent, high-level executives definitely helps retain (and increase) employee engagement along the change journey. Some change initiatives are blessed with the CEO’s involvement from inception. These are the lucky projects (or unlucky depending on the CEO’s personality).
For the rest of us, especially in IT-related changes, executive leaders sometimes shy away and delegate their duties to more technically inclined individuals that are further down the organizational chart. This is fine and makes a lot of sense. Still, when this happens, I’ve seen plenty of missed opportunities to utilize the influence of executives to maintain and increase employee engagement for these projects. The involvement of an executive-level player can have an exponential ripple effect on employee engagement. And guess what? The less time they have to dedicate to your project, the better! I know this can be counter intuitive. But there is a perfectly good reason for this.
For some of you, this piece of knowledge may throw you back in your first year of college when learning about behavioural psychology. Some of you may remember B. F. Skinner and the term ‘intermittent reinforcement’. Does this ring a ‘pavlov’ bell? Do you even remember what the B. F. in B. F. Skinner stands for? (Answer at the bottom of the post).
Intermittent reinforcement is when rewards (or warnings) are handed out inconsistently and occasionally. It means that you don’t get a reward every time you accomplish a certain task. Rewards are given randomly. This technique encourages the subject to keep moving towards the change goals in the hopes of getting rewarded for their hard work at a random point in the future.
One of the best (and simplest) examples of how intermittent reinforcement works is the slot machine. Slot machines are programmed to pay out random winnings to keep the player’s interest. If the payout was predictable, the gambler would quickly get bored and walk away. What keeps them feeding the machine are the small intermittent payouts and the dream of winning the big jackpot. With intermittent reinforcement, most gamblers will feed the small and medium-sized winnings straight back into the machine and keep playing. The slot machine utilizes intermittent reinforcement rules to motivate people to keep playing.
So how can we integrate intermittent reinforcement in an organizational setting for successful implementation of change?
Step 1 – Identify the senior executives that are directly/ indirectly impacted by the change initiative. Don’t be scared to ‘go big’ on this exercise. Go ahead and brainstorm the names on a piece of paper. Forget about all of your psychological roadblocks that prevents you from working with the right executives. They are just people too.
Step 2 – Prepare your speech/ presentation on the power of intermittent reinforcement and identify activities/ events related to intermittent reinforcements. Here are some examples:
- High-level executive handing out t-shirts with project logo to congratulate continued focus on the change initiative
- High-level executive handing out gift cards
- High-level executive congratulating 1 or 2 employees for exhibiting the right behaviours towards the change
Step 3 – Educate the project leaders on the power of intermittent reinforcement and the non-intuitive notion of the ‘less time the better’ mentality. Gain their approval.
Step 4 – Approach the senior executives who have been pegged for intermittent reinforcement. Educate them on the power of intermittent reinforcement and show them their involvement requirements and related activities. Gain their approval.
Explain to them how a minimal amount of time will have exponential ripple effect on employee engagement. Also, explain to them the impact of not having their time – a lost opportunity to mainain and increase employee engagement.
Step 5 – Hit the ground running. Wait for accolades and accept them with humility.
Step 6 – Adjust as required
A word on steering/ working committees
I want to be clear that steering/ working committee meetings are not a good medium to exercise intermittent reinforcement. Although an important part of any project, these types of meetings are too consistent over time. It would be contradictory to apply an inconsistent/ occasional reinforcement technique in a meeting that is consistent over time. The intermittent reinforcement technique can be better utilized by creating original meetings/ events. This will create a unique experience and stand out above the rest of the regular meetings associated with the change initiative.
With the concept of intermittent reinforcement, executives can reward (or warn) employees at different intervals to keep the desired behaviours going. As dictated by the intermittent reinforcement concept, inconsistent and occasional occurrences of these types of meetings will retain (or increase) employee engagement.
I can’t imagine any executives not wanting to adopt the intermittent reinforcement technique. Do you know of an executive that would want to dedicate more time on a project as oppose to less?
Answer: B. F. in B. F. Skinner stand for Burrhus Frederic.