By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D
Founding Editor, bSci21.org
I recently had the chance to sit down with Dr. Scott Herbst, founder and lead trainer of the consulting company SixFlex Training, which focuses on developing leadership from an approach heavily influenced by Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT). In this interview, we discuss Scott’s company, his journey in behavior analysis, and the role of entrepreneurship in promoting the field.
What is the mission of SixFlex Training?
It’s pretty simple. We want people to be productive and happy at work, clear on the difference they make and appreciated for making that difference. We do that through training and coaching executives and managers in using behavioral principles in their workplace and process design, as well as in their communication.
What’s behind the name “SixFlex”?
A lot of what I do is grounded in the research in language and thinking that behavior analysts have done in the last 30 years. One of the things that has come out of that is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which everyone calls ACT. The whole goal of ACT is to increase what they call psychological flexibility so that people can take actions towards what matters to them. In the business world, that translates to agility, creativity, and performance. So even though it was developed as a therapeutic model, its very applicable in the workplace. Anywhere things have hit a plateau or are predictable in a way that isn’t working, psychological flexibility will make a difference. In the ACT model, there are six core processes involved in psychological flexibility, and the model they use is the hexaflex. So, SixFlex is a play on that. And it’s in our logo.
Consulting companies run rampant these days. What makes SixFlex Training unique?
As a consulting company generally, its based in behavioral principles, which is the most practical model of human performance that I’ve come across. As a behavioral consulting company, what distinguishes us is that we incorporate technology based on cutting edge research in language. And, frankly, when you’re dealing with people, most of our experience of the world (at least in Westernized society) is constructed in language. A lot of the work we do makes huge differences for people at work – in terms of their performance, satisfaction, engagement, and culture – but is also something they can take home with them to have richer, more fulfilling relationships with their spouses, kids, and loved ones.
Tell us about your journey in behavior analysis and how you came to start your company.
I found behavior analysis completely by accident. I was going to teach high school English, mostly because I wanted to talk about literature and have summers off. It turns out, I wanted to talk about literature with people who wanted to talk about literature, and most high school Freshman didn’t share my passion. Sadly, you don’t find that out until the end. So when I graduated, I really didn’t look for a teaching job and after a few months got honest and said, “that’s not what I’m going to do.” But then I didn’t know what to do so I started looking for jobs that I seemed to qualify for. Since I had a few psych classes and a degree, there were a lot of social service jobs available, and I got one at Trinity Services, in Joliet, IL. One of the things that sold me on that position was that they had a degree program in something called behavior analysis that was being offered through University of Nevada. I didn’t know what that was, but they told me I could get a lot of the work done while I was working, and that it was something like psychology. I didn’t have high expectations. Most of the psych classes I’d taken as an undergrad didn’t actually seem like science to me. A lot of it basically seemed made up. Guys like Freud and Maslow – the ones everyone knows – they weren’t gathering what I would call data. They were telling stories. But I figured an MA couldn’t hurt, and I already had a degree in literature, so this shouldn’t be too hard.
And for me, it wasn’t. One thing that had always stuck with me about my psych classes was the whole nature/nurture question. As silly as I thought a lot of the content was, that always stayed with me, and sort of on my own, I came to the conclusion that if my life is some expression of a collision between my genetics and my history, there’s really no “me.” I’m just a point where those two things meet and my experience of consciousness is just part of that. Its not a far step to say there’s no free will and my behavior is ordered. I was sort of blown away by that idea and even more blown away that, in all of my classes, no one had even mentioned that idea. I really thought I was the only one thinking this stuff!
So then I enroll in this BA Masters program and we had all these readings to do before the first class, and I was getting really excited, because it seems like these guys were actually doing science and had a fully articulated system of all the things I’d been thinking. And then, on the second day of class, Jim Carr (who is a really great teacher) said – and he was kind of careful and gentle about it – “So, you do realize that if all of these ideas are true, then the logical place to go is that there’s no free will.” And I knew I was home; I’d found my people.
And I wasn’t really enjoying my job but loved the classes and learning so after a couple of classes, I transferred to the on-ground program at UNR, moved across the country, and then applied to the PhD program. I got very lucky to have found this. Then, at UNR, I started working with Ramona Houmanfar, and she taught me a systems approach to organizations. And along the way I did some work with Linda Hayes who really taught me philosophy, and Steve Hayes, who got me excited about Relational Frame Theory and ACT – and I would say those three really provided the frame for my intellectual base. UNR was a very cool place to go to school. I got to work in a mouse lab doing medical research, and in an instructional design lab, and I helped a friend run ACT workshops for his dissertation – I could go on. There were a lot of opportunities.
Then I graduated and took a job at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and spent six really great years there. I learned a lot about teaching and engaging adults. And I’m not even going to feign modesty; I got really good at it. After a couple of years, they gave me a class to teach about behavioral psychotherapies because the instructor they had lined up dropped out at the last minute and they knew I knew something about ACT. They were desperate, so I gave them the condition that I would do it as long as I could do whatever I wanted. They said, Ok, so I turned it into a 15 week experiential workshop. I had them do a little bit of reading (for a grad class) but mostly we did a lot of exercises about taking the principles out into their lives and what was important to them. The first run through wasn’t that great – it wasn’t bad – but I got better and better at delivering the content, much better as listener and coach, and by the last time I taught it, was delivering some really powerful results for people. And I loved it! It started to get clear to me that this was really what I wanted to be doing – helping people have great lives. Given my training, and how much time people spend at work and how that impacts the quality of their lives, the natural place to go do that was in organizations.
Can you speak more to the entrepreneurial process from initial conception to now?
I would say start with a good plan. You don’t always realize how much starting a business is going to cost. Even for me as I’m operating out of a home office, there are expenses. I’ve joined associations for the industries where I want to work, there’s networking events, I’m currently spending money on an online platform – and planning for that stuff is really key. It works to find people who are good at business and start talking to them. Through that, I learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work, and saw a lot of actions to take. I also used something called SCORE, which is a network of retired entrepreneurs who provide mentorship. They were really helpful in guiding me through the planning process. Aside from that, I simply talked about it a lot. I didn’t have any idea what I was doing, and so I started behaving, and then my environment started giving me things. I hooked up with a guy who was just starting a web design business and he did my site for very cheap. I had people help me go through my courses to see if my content communicates with normal people. I had people donate space so I could pilot my courses. And all of that came through me opening my mouth and talking. That, for me, was and is the most important part of the process. If you think about it, a business really is just a bunch of words – it mostly exists in language – especially a consulting business. The more you talk about it, the more it lives, and the more quickly it will take shape.
Have ACT principles helped you overcome challenges or barriers to starting your own company?
Oh my god, yes. ACT is all about distinguishing the content of your mind as content and taking action on what you really care about it. My content is horrible! My thoughts will tell me that I’m the worst person alive, and no one will want anything to do with me, and that’s the stuff that’s fit to print. If I listened to the content as real, I would never in a million years have taken this on. Beyond that it’s about willingness to face your fears. Every time I open my mouth about my business its an opportunity to have people call me an idiot, or laugh in my face, or say something hurtful. They usually don’t, but to market a business, you have to be willing to have that happen. Finally, ACT has a values piece, where you really try to align your actions with what you care about. That’s been really useful in choosing what I’m going to offer and who I will consider partnering with. So while practicing things that will keep me psychologically flexible has opened up a lot in terms of actions I see to and am willing to take, the values piece has been instrumental in helping me select powerfully from all these available options – and then get back up and try the next thing when some of them don’t work.
Beyond that, though, the whole RFT model has been a big help. One beef I have with ACT is that its proponents really stress “don’t try to alter the content!” That’s probably mostly good advice, because most of the ways people try to alter it don’t work so well. Trying not think things doesn’t work. Drugs and alcohol generally only work in the short term. Sure. Don’t do those things. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t effective ways, and I feel like the ACT community really hasn’t explored them. For example, you may notice that a lot of the things that come out of your mouth didn’t originate with you. That is, people in your environment were already saying them when you got there, and you picked them up, and now you say them too, and now they occur as very true for you. Well, that’s content, and it didn’t start with you. I’m all for managing my content, and one way I do that is by being very mindful of the people I talk to regularly. I make it a point of talking to people who are successful and talk about seeing lots of opportunities. I talk to people who tell me I’m brilliant, and that I really make a difference, and I make a point of doing so. And then there’s people in my life who would say that business is hard, or that it’s scary, or seem to think I should be worried. So I talk to them about other things. The point is, I really try to manage my verbal environment, and doing so has made a big difference in terms of what I see as possible. And, if you see something as possible, the natural thing to do is act on it.
What do you see as the role of entrepreneurship in behavior analysis?
Well, the world isn’t going to come to us. If behavior analysis is going to make a real difference on this planet, its going to have to be by people taking it to the world. And, to do so in a way that people understand. Of course, in some areas, it doesn’t matter as much. Autism, for example. But that’s a growing market, and the people buying those services are desperate. And we have something that works, so people are going to buy it. But even then, we’re still competing with fad diets and sensory therapies and things that there are no evidence for, probably because we haven’t made our product accessible. Its funny that we’re founded on a selectionist model but when it comes to people selecting us, we want the environment to change. I don’t know that I’m actually answering the question here…
Some people reading this will have always dreamt of one day starting their own business, but may need an extra “nudge” from someone as encouragement. What would you say to that person?
I have some really good news for you; you’re going to die. All of the effort and worry you put into your survival? It isn’t going to pay off. So you don’t have to worry about that anymore. So go do something you love.
Scott Herbst, PhD is the founder and Lead Trainer at SixFlex Training and Consulting. After six years in academia, he left to pursue his passion of training leaders and managers to create, manage, and communicate in work environments where people are productive, excited, and vital. As a course designer, he grounds his curricula in cutting edge research in language and thinking as well as decades of research in operant performance. As a trainer, he is an engaging and powerful speaker who makes learning fun and exciting. You can visit his company site at www.SixFlexTraining.com, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.