One of the disappointing aspects of my profession as a trainer is how so many in our profession (and I include myself at times) get excited by new shiny techniques that promise us to fix one of the big problems in organisations…how do you get people to change behaviour? We seek out techniques that will work quickly and fix the problem so that our organisations can run more smoothly. From an initial pilot study a project can quickly be picked up and implemented across a whole organisation and then a few years later it is forgotten about as the desired change in behaviour has not happened.

It was in this context that I picked up Timothy Wilson’s book “Redirect. The surprising new science of psychological change”

The book is a really detailed but readable overview of some of the latest research on various group and individual interventions designed to create positive change. Wilson outlines why many of these interventions have failed, even though they seem at first to make perfect sense.

An example which stood out for me was the “Free Book” project. The idea is that children get rewarded for reading by having a prize that they will get once they have read a certain number of books. For children who were not keen on reading this had a desired effect. Whilst the reward was in place they did read more. But once the reward system stopped their reading went back down to previous levels. The really scary thing was that for children who already did plenty of reading the scheme did not increase their rate of reading but when the scheme was over their level of reading dropped right off! By putting a reward system in place the children had started seeing reading as something that they had to be motivated to do by external rewards and no longer something that they valued themselves.

I reflected on this in terms of the myriad of performance bonus systems that I have seen implemented in the various organisations I have worked in. Many managers I work with love these incentive schemes as they feel that they are able to reward good behaviour with a positive outcome. If you scratch the surface then you quickly realise that all these schemes are doing is introducing a mechanical way of getting us to “do the right thing”. Once the reward changes (and how many incentive schemes are ever that good in a recession?) then the motivation to do the right thing is no longer there.

The key solution that was recommended from the research was something that individuals could easily implement themselves – the story editing techniques. These are defined by Wilson as “a set of techniques designed to redirect people’s narrative about themselves and the social world in a way that leads to lasting changes in behaviour” (p.11, 2011).

You can read more about the story editing technique in this interview with Timothy Wilson

If you are a trainer or change consultant who is bored of the shiny things you might find the book as useful as I did in promoting a more reflective and research based approach to intervening to influence change in organisations.