One of the first things I learned when I got into the applied side of my field as a Behavioral Scientist, when I was still green and just starting practicum, turned out to be one of the most meaningful things I've ever learned.
It was a simple statement. Mushed in between concepts.
"Establish yourself as a conditioned reinforcer."
Intellectually I knew what that meant. I knew the mechanics of it and it made perfect sense but it took me some time before I got good at it because it was a somewhat complex concept and yet in practice it feels over simple. It even feels like common sense…and yet…people don’t do it.
I was listening to a podcast recently (I’m completely obsessed with them so rarely do I tell a story these days without a podcast anecdote) that chronicled the professional life of a music-professional-turned-journalist. He describes his first moments as a leader in his new profession:
“The reporters that I was in charge of, they were green. Right out of college. I was a terrible boss. I sort of took on a role. I portrayed this character. This grumpy newspaper character who was yelling. Sort of like Lou Grant. Slamming doors, saying horrible things to the reporters when they turned in their copy, ‘This is garbage! Did somebody drop you on your head when you were born?!? What’s wrong with you?!?’ I was a real asshole. I really didn’t have any idea what I was doing.”
So what's the difference between “don’t be as ass” and “establish yourself as a conditioned reinforcer?”
Well they really are two distinctly different things. Establishing yourself as a conditioned reinforcer means taking meaningful steps to make yourself someone worthy of “working for.” And I don’t just mean as an employer/boss/leader. This is something you should really do with all of your meaningful relationships.
The way it was first put to me was, “Pair yourself with good stuff.” In other words, do things that people find reinforcing so that they will pair you (and your presence) with “good stuff.” When people see you as a person who is reinforcing, you will have little to no problems with engagement or ensuring the relationship gives as much as you do.
Over the years I’ve been able to narrow it down to some behaviors that tend to be pretty universal to achieve this. So if you are building a relationship with someone whom you need to be on board with you, here are some concrete behaviors you can engage in to ensure you are “paired with good stuff.”
- Ask Questions- This is a new relationship so there is plenty to learn. Show them that you want to learn about them/from them. This helps people feel that you are invested in and care about them.
- Listen- Don’t preach at people. Don't act as if you know ALL. You don't and it's a rookie mistake to act like you do. Listen and take in what the person/people say. You will need it later, I promise.
- Make time- Be flexible with your time as much as possible (within reason- boundaries are good and you can bring them into the picture as you go). Show them that their time is just as valuable as yours.
- Solve things in the moment- if you have an easy solution for an issue that this person is having, solve it for them right then and there. They are looking for someone to fix something and you’ve “got a guy”? Tell the person that you have a potential solution and ask them if they want you to call "your guy" right now and get you set up with something. Open, empty promises are poor evidence for future reliable behavior so make good on things as soon as you can and the best way to do that is right now. No room for error. No room for putting it off until later.
I’m sure there are countless others but these have generally work for most people, in most situations, in my experience. Do you have to do all of this, all of the time? No. But at first, you mostly definitely want to set this tone and then stick with it as much as is reasonable over time.
Establishing myself as someone that people feel good being around has, unsurprisingly, been monumental to my own success. So for those who feel like they don’t know what they are doing and think making up a persona is the way to go. STOP. Start by establishing yourself as a conditioned reinforcer and the rest will fall into place sooo much easier.
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