5 things Behavior Analysts should know about Organizational Behavior Management (OBM)

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By Dan Sundberg, PhD

bSci21 Contributing Writer

A few years back the California Association for Behavior Analysis (CalABA) partnered with the OBM Network to co-host their annual conferences. In addition to the great presentations and well run events, there was a really surprising bit of learning that happened that year. Throughout the conference, the staff at the OBM Network booth had a large number of behavior analysts approach them to ask “what is OBM, and what does it have to do with ABA?”

I was surprised by this, but at the same time I thought “how wonderful, there are so many people who are in for a great discovery.” I am biased, because this is the field to which I have devoted my professional career, but knowledge of OBM can drastically increase any ABA practitioner’s effectiveness, and can expand the horizons of what can be done with ABA.

Simply stated, Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) is a subfield of ABA, in which the science of behavior analysis is applied to influencing behavior in the workplace. OBM has helped countless people find solutions to frustrating workplace issues, build workplaces on a foundation of positive reinforcement rather than punishment, and improve critical business results. There are hundreds of behavior analysts who make their career in this way, and hundreds more who use OBM to help bolster their other professional practice. Whether this is old news to you, or the first time you are hearing about behavior analysis in business, here are five things that can help give you a better understanding of this subfield of ABA.

It is your future – if not your present! Do you hold a leadership position in your company? Perhaps you even own your own company? If so, then you are already practicing in the realm of OBM. OBM is relevant to anyone who relies on the behavior of others to get things done. Most BCBAs in the field do not primarily spend their time directly delivering services. Instead, they lead a team of people who deliver treatment services. Perhaps you even lead a team of BCBAs, and provide feedback, training, support, and reinforcers to help them get their job done. If you are in this position – OBM is already your present!

Those of you not in this position, if you plan to advance in ABA, you will likely find yourself in a position where you are leading others, and will need to influence their behavior (rather than the behavior of your clients) through your words and actions, as well as the processes and systems you create. This means that OBM is in your future!

But the good news is…

You are already learning many of the skills you need. OBM is based on the same science and principles as clinical ABA. After all, behavior is behavior. And in fact there are a number of behavior analysts who fluidly move between organizational, clinical, and educational behavior analysis. Look up the CVs of people like Drs. Al Poling, Ron Van Houten, Carl Binder, and Dave Wilder and you will see clinical ABA work mixed in with organizational and leadership work. These people know the science of behavior, which allows them to apply it to changing behavior on the job, as well as in the classroom or in a home.

As a behavior analyst you already know how to pinpoint behaviors, analyze the way in which the environment supports behavior, and find and test reinforcers.  You know how to answer the question – “why are they doing that??” That is half the battle!

Like any other subfield in behavior analysis, there is some specialized knowledge that is helpful in becoming a truly effective OBM practitioner. For example, learning how companies make money can help you to quickly identify many important contingencies. For more detail on some of the useful skills for an OBM practitioner, check out this article (Therrien & Rodriguez, 2007).

But for all who practice OBM, the work fundamentally boils down to one thing…

OBM is about bringing clarity to otherwise unclear situations. What does it really mean to practice OBM? The biggest value OBM practitioners create, is to bring clarity to helping people understand behavior. The owner of a manufacturing company can’t figure out why employees keep behaving unsafely, even though they clearly can get hurt. A leader tries to understand why a member of her team just isn’t contributing as much. A supervisor wants to learn how to train her supervisees to become more skilled. A clinical director is concerned that employee turnover in his department is so high. These are situations in which there is uncertainty, caused by the behavior of people.

Sometimes people are intimidated by OBM, stating they know nothing about business. While it is true there are a lot of skills an OBM practitioner must have, the most fundamental one is the ability to show a clear link between business results and pinpointed behavior, and clarify the role antecedents and consequences play in supporting or hindering that behavior.

And OBM helps people to remember that…

The rat is always right. This saying is popular in behavior analysis, and for good reason. It reminds us the behavior we are seeing is a result of existing environmental contingencies.
Rather than blaming the individual for their performance, we look to see how the environment is supporting that behavior. Yet this point is sometimes lost when people turn to apply behavior analysis to the work setting. In OBM there is a similar saying that goes:

“Pit a good performer against a bad system and the bad system will win every time”
(attributed to Geary Rummler)

Often you will hear statements such as “my people are so lazy!” “they just don’t care!” “if only I had better employees” and my new personal favorite, blaming “generational issues” (“these millennials just…!”). Yet, just as it is the case in clinical ABA, blaming individual performers is rarely productive, and often distracts from the real issues. Much of the work an OBM practitioner does is to shift focus toward the work environment, and help leaders focus on fixing the system, rather than the person.

To do this, effective OBM practitioners always remember…

Don’t get hung up on the words. I once heard about a behavior analyst who was inflexible with his terminology during meetings with clients’ schools and families. He insisted on using the technically appropriate terms, despite the fact that most of these people had no idea what he was talking about. And he was proud of this behavior, despite the fact that he had frequent issues with people adopting and implementing his behavior plans. In behavior analysis we have a lot of technical jargon, and it is good to be technically correct when you are talking amongst colleagues. But this can produce behaviors that the outside world associates with words like “rude”, “arrogant”, and “abrasive”. For an amusing look at what many of our words may sound like to outsiders check out this article.

In the world of OBM, this point is especially important. The best practitioners know when and how to flex on technical terminology. Because we know that it is not the topography of language that is important, it is the function. For example, in the field an OBM practitioner may use words like “reward”, “reinforcement”, and “motivation” in a way that would get them skewered at an ABAI conference. But, so long as those words have the desired impact on behavior, it’s ok to use a non-technical term to describe something technical. Good OBM practitioners can “speak the language” of their clients, but in a way that is consistent with behavioral principles.

There is, of course, much more to learn about the field of OBM. Interested readers can check out some other bSci21.org articles on OBM that can help introduce you to the field, like this one and this one. You can also check out the reading list on the OBM Network webpage for some self-instruction. Hopefully these 5 things will help to make the field a little more approachable and perhaps a little less mysterious. If you do decide to learn more about OBM, congratulations, you are in for a great discovery.

Let us know about the successes, or obstacles, you encounter when implementing OBM projects in the comments below.  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest updates directly to your inbox!

Dan SundbergDaniel B. Sundberg, PhD, is a behavior analyst dedicated to creating meaningful change for individuals and organizations using the science of human behavior. Dan has worked in a variety of organizations, including non-profits. Additionally, Dan spent two years as a university lecturer, teaching undergraduate students how to improve the workplace with behavior analysis

Dan earned his B.A. in Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, M.S. in Organizational Behavior Management from Florida Institute of Technology, and Ph. D. in Industrial/ Organizational Behavior Management from Western Michigan University. During this time, some of the best thinkers in behavior analysis and OBM mentored Dr. Sundberg as an academician and business professional.

Dan is currently Regional Manager of Consulting Services at ABA Technologies, where he helps to develop and deliver OBM consulting services. Dan is also a guest reviewer for the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and in his spare time he creates behavior-based products that allow people to manage their time and accomplish their goals. He also has a special interest in building effective work practices and cultures for start-up companies, and increasing the positive effects of organizations working towards an environmentally sustainable future.  You can contact him at dan@abatechnologies.com.

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6 Comments on "5 things Behavior Analysts should know about Organizational Behavior Management (OBM)"

  1. Dan, I love this. The part about promoting more user friendly language and less behavioral jargon is so true!!!

  2. Excellent article! Communication with client’s is of the utmost importance!

  3. Great write-up, Dan. I just stumbled upon this after conducting an OBM Google search. I’m a student at Rowan (MA ABA) and also a detective (FT) and 1SG (PT) in the military. I am new to the field of ABA and extremely interested in OBM. This is right up my alley. Until recently, I was unaware of its existence in the ABA field. (Even Brett DiNovi commented – what a small world)

  4. Hi, i am absolutely thrilled with behavioral sciences, however my bachelor’s is not on Psychology, which is a pity 🙁
    I still am eager to research though, what do you recommend?
    Thanks!

  5. Pit a good performer against a bad system and the bad system will win every time”
    (attributed to Geary Rummler)

    Actually from W Edwards Deming

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