Saturday, July 28, 2001

People Develop Commitment Through Having Choices: A Lesson From Harvard Business Review

Somehow a copy of Harvard Business Review landed in my office and I started reading it on my commute train. The following article caught my eye and I want to pass along some points it makes.

Richard Chase and Sriram Dasu author a cover article titled "Want to perfect your company's service? Use behavioral science." (HBR June 2001, p. 79, click to read it online). They try to apply decades of behavioral research to illuminate what the service experience feels like to the customer. Here are some main points:

(1) People remember the start and the end of the experience more than the middle, but they remember the end most of all. Therefore, to bring customers back, service providers should end on an upnote. Can we learn from this principle in our context? Many of our local meetings end with a round of applause. This is a feel-good experience and provides an upbeat ending. Score one for us.

(2) If there is bad news, get it out of the way early. At a recent meeting it was known that one member had had a relapse. When the opening statement was done, the meeting convenor could have started the check-in ("how was your week") to his left or to his right. Instead he went straight across the room to the member who had relapsed and asked him to start off the discussion. Good move. The meeting processed the bad news early and ended strong.

(3) People desperately want things to make sense and will concoct an explanation when none is available. In the recovery context, the atmosphere is filled with "explanations" derived from the religious/spiritual 12-Step movement. If we don't step in with our own secular explanations, people will fall back on what's available, even if it's counterfactual or meaningless under scrutiny. Lesson: convenors who study and develop a deeper theoretical understanding of secular recovery principles can fill the vacuum and help people make sense of their experience in a rational manner.

(4) People develop commitment through having choices. "A fascinating study found that blood donors perceived significantly less discomfort when they were allowed to select the arm from which the blood would be drawn. The lesson is clear: people are happier and more comfortable when they believe they have some control over a process, particularly an uncomfortable one. Often the control handed over is largely symbolic (as in the choice of arm). In other cases, it's very real: the medical profession has long recognized the value of allowing the patient to make an informed choice about alternative treatments for cancer and heart disease. These are extremely important, high-stakes decisions, and great value is gained by including the patient in the decision. He or she feels less helpless, less hopeless, and more committed to making the process work." (p. 83).

In a nutshell, our approach of telling the person new in recovery that they have a choice and that they have the power to construct their own personal recovery protocol is sound in principle, with clear support in motivational research. The contrary approach -- telling people that they are helpless and have zero power to choose -- is a substandard, unsupportable practice. Our approach develops and reinforces the most important single ingredient in a person's recovery over the long term: the inner commitment to succeed.

It's always good to learn that we're on the right track, even if the stroke comes from such an improbable source as HBR.