4 Reasons Why Leaders and Coaches Should Collaborate with Behavior Analysts

What do leaders, managers, personal trainers, and health/performance coaches all have in common? In some way, shape, or form, they all serve to influence the behavior of those who they lead, train, or coach. A leader or manager in an organization may delegate job tasks to employees or oversee a team-based project, while a personal trainer may be hired to assist a client who wants to improve their level of physical fitness or lose weight. In both situations, individuals will need to DO something (engage in behavior) in order to achieve the desired outcomes. All results are the product of behavior. To change results, you must change behavior, and to change behavior, you must design a supportive environment.

As a leader, manager, trainer, or coach, have you ever come across a “difficult” employee or client, one for whom you struggled to understand why their work performance declined or their adherence to a nutrition or training plan deteriorated over time? Have you scratched your head or spent hours trying to “figure them out”?

If so, you might find it beneficial to collaborate with a behavior analyst. The behaviors you want your employee or client to engage in are often within their skill set, but the workplace or coaching environment doesn't support the effort to engage in said behavior(s). Understanding people’s behavior is what behavior analysts are trained to do, and you must understand behavior before you can try to influence it.

1. We are skilled “noticers”. Behavior analysts are expert people-watchers. This can be a bit of problem in some situations, though—for example, I sometimes have to remind myself not to get “lost” in observation while in a public place (e.g., airport, bar, coffee shop) so as not to be “caught” staring! That said, our noticing skills allow us to fully understand the context within which behavior occurs. We are trained to look at person-environment interactions in a way that allow us to notice the many factors that affect behavior and influence the decisions and choices that individuals make at a given moment in time.

2. We are pragmatic. Behavior analysts are trained to assess the situation and then identify effective and sustainable solutions for behavior change. We know what questions to ask and have tools to use that allow us to understand “why people do what they do”, and we offer evidence-based solutions to support desired action. You won’t find us advertising tricks, fads, or gimmicks, and we won’t recommend a complex, multi-component intervention when a simpler and more practical solution exists. Have you ever wondered why your employee or client constantly shows up late to a meeting or appointment? The answer might surprise you!

3. We are objective. Behavior analysts are not inclined to fall prey to the “rumor mill”. A common problem is to talk about behavior in very general terms, using what we call “trait labels”. Behavior analysts replace labels and assumptions with factual information based on our observations. This allows us to name the specifics of the problem at hand, as well as to provide feedback to the individual whose behavior needs to change. If you were to tell us that your employee or client is “lazy”, “unmotivated”, or “rude”, we will ask you to describe the specific behaviors that led you to describe them as such. This allows us to be in a better position to suggest a line of action for improvement.

4. We are data NERDS. Behavior analysts are some of the most data-oriented folks you’ll encounter. It’s not uncommon to hear them saw “show me the data!” when a colleague or potential client is presenting a problem or describing a solution. Once we’ve pinpointed a behavior for change, we develop a tracking system that is used to measure the behavior before intervening, while intervening, and after intervening.  Our goal is to objectively demonstrate that our solutions caused the desired effect. Measurement also provides us with information to make informed and ongoing changes when we see that things are not working, ensure alignment of behavior and results, deliver effective feedback, and to provide effective reinforcement contingent on behavior. Positive social attention is one of the most under-utilized reinforcers for desired behavior. Did you know, however, that attention can also unintentionally reinforce undesired behaviors (e.g., complaining, sarcasm)?

To close, I want to add that behavior analysts have a burning desire to make the world a better place. Though we are behavior change experts, we do not use our knowledge to manipulate others in a secretive or devious manner. We jump at the opportunity to help find solutions to issues that are important and meaningful to individuals, organizations, and society. We care more about making sure the work we do produces an effect that is practically and socially significant versus only “statistically significant.”

My “bff” B.F. Skinner conveyed this sentiment quite perfectly when he said:

“We are not trying to change people, only the world in which they live.”

One of my personal goals in working with individuals, leaders, and other coaches is to help them to create environments that promote resilient and adaptable behavior. It is my belief that the ability to both keep putting one foot in front of the other during times of struggle and inevitable change increases our ability to survive and thrive in both work and life. (See my recent post on how to engage your resilience “super powers”).

I suppose maybe I am a bit biased, but I also suspect you might be considering a future collaboration with a behavior analyst…lucky for you, I happen to know one! 😉