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The science of making positive change: Simple steps for big change

Think big and act small, time it right using “commitment devices,” and focus on positive reinforcement and social norms


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Change is hard. We all know this. Whether it is breaking a bad habit or developing a new routine or skill, all of us have struggled with change in our personal lives.

Organizational or group change can be even more challenging. In that case, it is not only personal habits and actions that must be altered, but change must happen simultaneously among diverse individuals, often against the tide of existing organizational culture.

Research shows that some strategies and tactics can make change easier, on any level. In her new book “How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be,” behavioral scientist Katy Milkman outlines simple techniques for making personal change. Many of these techniques apply to group change as well. Here are few of the key points.

First, think big. The intention for any significant change should be framed around a sense of higher purpose. An organization’s mission should not just be words that no one can remember. It should mean something to every individual, a North Star for who they aspire to be. For example, if you want members to adhere to protections against contamination from PPE, initially talk about long term-health goals, not so much about consequences of violating any given policy.

Then, act small. Big goals are achieved through small daily changes in behavior that must be chosen and codified to become the new norms. Establish clear policies that emphasize the positive goal rather than short-term negative consequences. Develop checklists for routine tasks that might be otherwise glossed over out of complacency. Prioritize goals and schedule accordingly. For example, which is more important to get done first thing each shift: PT or housecleaning? Allow some flexibility in meeting goals, but never waver from the overall sense of purpose underlying them. Above all, do everything you can to make the new way easy and logical for all involved.

Consider timing when making change. Research shows that people are more open to change when they can make a fresh start. It can help to link change to these kinds of “resets.” There is a reason why New Year’s resolutions remain popular (even if not always successful) and political leaders often link new initiatives to historical dates.

Reset opportunities for firefighters, EMTs and paramedics might include starting with a new crew, occupying a new station, or welcoming new leadership. It is important that the fresh start truly provide a clean slate to all involved, otherwise the old way will just be cloned into the new environment. One example of how positive change can be linked to timing markers is the annual Firefighter Safety Stand Down.

Commitment devices” can help. Commitment devices are anything external to the person making change that reinforce that person’s commitment to the new way. Establishing deadlines for performance of certain tasks is a commonplace commitment device. On a larger scale, the International First Responder Seatbelt Pledge is a program where individuals and organizations can make a public statement about their commitment to safety in always using seatbelts. There is no obvious negative outcome for responders who take the seatbelt pledge and then break it, other than being shown to be among those who cannot always be taken at their word. But that is a big consequence for most people.

Focus on positive reinforcement. Behavioral science shows that while negative reinforcement is effective for dealing with episodic behavioral problems, if you want to really change people at their core – and focus on the organizations they embody – you need to increase positive reinforcement. This is quite different from telling everyone they are wonderful all the time. People aren’t wonderful all the time and will need to be corrected at times as they learn new skills and behaviors. But if you only tell people what they are doing wrong, and never highlight the better way or positive achievements, people will only try to avoid criticism and ridicule rather than aspiring to truly do better.

Finally, create positive social norms. This is a function of leadership, but leadership takes many forms. People, especially new people to any group, are motivated to fit in and will do so by copying the behaviors they witness among those in position of influence. So, if you are the officer, the senior paramedic, the most experienced rescue specialist or the person everyone likes best in the station, use your influence to lead by example. Walk the talk. If you want to curtail station gossip, don’t gossip. Use your PPE properly on every incident. Communicate effectively with others. Don’t freelance. Treat people with respect. If you live these values, your example will speak louder than any words you might say. And this is ultimately how change happens.

Linda Willing is a retired career fire officer and currently works with emergency services agencies and other organizations on issues of leadership development, decision making, and diversity management through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. She is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor with the National Fire Academy. Linda is the author of On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories. She has a bachelor’s degree in American studies, a master’s degree in organization development and is a certified mediator. Linda is a member of the FireRescue1/Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board. To contact Linda, e-mail