During a recent course that I taught with my business partner Jan Sparrow, an executive turned to us to say, “All this stuff is great and I want to change my behavior, but how do I make sure it sticks long term?”
This is an important question for positive psychology practitioners, whether as professional therapists, life coaches, and consultants or as individuals wanting to implement personal positive behavioral changes. It is not easily answered. Recently in studying long-term, positive behavioral change I came across an article by Brendan I. Koerner about Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Reading the article I realized there is much that AA can teach all of us about long-term change even in the face of addiction. Though they admit their failure rate is very high they still have created an astounding record of behavioral change. Let’s explore four of the elements of AA as an opening for a dialogue about creating long-term positive behavioral change.
- Gain commitment.
Commitment is the key element for AA to have any chance of succeeding and most likely individuals who attend a meeting are present because they intend to try to change. Perhaps the same can be said of those who engage life coaches, or therapists. They do so believing they will create long-term positive behavioral change.
The situation rapidly deteriorates in many corporate settings where “classes” of employees are gathered to learn about a topic. The “prisoners” as we call them, can range anywhere from 10 – 90% of a class. (Yes, we do take a poll). From the corporate perspective we’ve tried a few strategies to gain commitment. First we get the prisoners to acknowledge their imprisonment. Talking about the elephant in the room always helps. Also, each participant creates and signs a contract on the action plan they agree to.What do you do to encourage and insure commitment?
- Build self-efficacy. AA gives members constant support to continue their change. In each meeting they get to hear from others who were in their situation and choose sobriety.
In assisting behavioral change in corporate settings we use Bandura’s strategies. We highlight links to past accomplishments, provide mentors or role models, offer verbal persuasion and engage them to the point where they believe they can continue their behavioral change.
What do you do to build or help build self-efficacy?
- Form groups or relationships. One of the keys behind long-term positive behavioral change is the power of the group. Whether through accountability or support, individuals are more likely to continue change within a supportive context. The meetings provide this opportunity in AA.
In corporate settings, even in large group meetings, we have people create triads or partnerships and ask that they check in with each other on a regular basis.
How do you create a support group?
- Instill new habits. One of the most difficult parts of change is that we tend to revert to what we’ve always done. As my business partner says, “The familiar is seductive.” Changing habits is the toughest part of long-term behavioral change. AA recommends 90 consecutive days of meetings when you first join them. Part of the reason for this recommendation is that AA is structured to be every bit as habit forming as alcohol.
We’ve also initiated a 90 day process where, after workshops, we ask our participants to work on their behavioral change for 90 days. We check in at 30, 60 and 90 days. One of our most popular workshops on connecting emotionally with clients has increased productivity in financial advisors minimally 17% compared to the control group if they continue with it at least 90 days.
What are you doing to instill the new habits?
Long-term positive behavioral change is a goal that many individuals desire. Those of us who build on positive psychology hope to identify, explore, and disseminate what changes people’s lives for the better. AA’s strategies of commitment, confidence, community, and consistency can assist in creating long-term positive behavioral change. What are your strategies?
Ashford, S.A., Edmunds, J. and French, O.P. (2010) What is the best way to change self-efficacy to promote lifestyle and recreational physical activity? A systematic review with meta-analysis. British Journal of Health Psychology. 15(2) 265-288.
Kelly, J.F., Magill, M. and Stout, R.L. (2009). How do people recover from alcohol dependence? A systematic review of the research oon mechanisms of behavior change in Alcoholics Anonymous. Addiction Research and Theory. 17(3), 236-259.
Koerner, B.I., (2010). The Secret of AA: After 75 years, we don’t know how it works. Wired. 18(7).
Vaillant, G. (2001). Interview: A Doctor Speaks. First printed in AA Grapevine Magazine, 57(12).