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The 6 behavioural change lessons that organisations can draw from addiction treatment

Imagine, you wake up in the morning and the first thing you think of is drinking a bottle of beer. By the end of the day, you look back and figure that you could not concentrate at work, had a fight with your spouse, you finished 24 bottles of beer, and you feel dreadful. This is the reality many people face daily. Approximately 12% of the population in The Netherlands has an addiction; 3% of these people are in treatment for their addiction.*

The therapists of an addiction clinic are there for these people every day. They treat people with addictions to alcohol, but also smoking, drugs, gambling or even gaming. Therapists have developed a range of approaches to treat these addictions.

If you want to learn about behavioural change, it is interesting to take a look at addiction treatment, one of the most pure forms of behavioural change, and see what you can learn from it. We found that business leaders can draw some very interesting lessons for leading behavioural change within their own organisations from the approaches that addiction therapists use. 

  1. Intrinsic motivation is key. The patients who arrive at the addiction clinic are usually intrinsically motivated. This intrinsic motivation is crucial for their treatment, because it means they are truly willing to change and are not doing it for someone else. Of course, family and friends often encourage them, but when people are not intrinsically motivated, it is nearly impossible to change. When people are forced to change they will be less motivated, have no ownership and there is a small chance the change process will succeed.
  2. Create a sense of urgency and excitement by showing the effects. Stress the urgency to change: in case of addiction treatment the negative consequences of addiction, in an organisational context this could be the financial figures. Also create a sense of excitement by stressing the positive effects of change, for example the health and financial benefits of not smoking or the benefits and fun people will experience once they have started the change process.
  3. Let people set their own goals. This will create ownership. However, note that everyone sets different goals. For example, an alcoholic can choose to drink 5 beers instead of 20 beers a day, or not to drink not at all. If people set their own goals, they will be more motivated to achieve them. Sometimes you know a goal is not reachable, but then you have to let it go and adapt it over time. In that way, people experience themselves which goals are best in their situation.
  4. Listen and be free of judgement. As an addiction therapist or leader of change you have to devote your attention to the person in front of you and listen carefully. By listening and being free of judgement at the same time, you will give the other person a feeling of interest and attention and you will create a safe environment. In addition, you will be able to read between the lines and find out what the other is really saying and what could be the underlying reasons for a certain behaviour or opinion. Being free of judgment means that the therapist does not have an opinion about the addict. He does not think that the other person must change, he does not think it is ‘bad’ that they are addicted, and he does not make a judgement on the goals they set. He is free of judgement at the start of the process and during the process. This will help him in establishing a trustful relationship with the person in front of him.
  5. Focus on (positive) change language. If you listen carefully, you will hear ‘change language’: language that shows that someone is willing to change. When people are resistant to change, focus on the language that shows that they are open to change, even if it is only a little. For example: “I really like smoking, because it makes me calm and relaxed in times of stress. But I know it is bad for my lungs in the long run”. The therapist will focus on the latter: the addict shows that he is aware of the negative consequences of not quitting. This is an opening for further exploration of why he wants to quit smoking and building his motivation for the treatment. Use the same language as the other person by using those specific words that he uses and that are familiar to him. Be patient, listen carefully and focus on the positive things you hear.
  6. Fallbacks are okay. Anticipate on them. 50 to 70 percent of the patients in addiction treatment have a fallback within the first year after treatment.** Therapists anticipate on these fallbacks when they start the treatment process: they agree with the patient what can be defined as a fallback and what they will do when it happens. A change process is not an overnight process: you have to be patient and persistent. You have to be aware of the fact that new behaviour will not be visible at once. A change process is a process in which you have to let go of something old and embrace something new, which is not easy. Therefore you have to expect that there will be one or more fallbacks during the process, and that is okay.

Generally we can conclude from the lessons on behavioural change from addiction treatment that organisational leaders can actually learn a lot from other perspectives, especially the ones from which one does not expect this! Therefore we can say that lesson number 7 is: be open to new insights from other perspectives!

If you would like to read more about Organisational Transformation and Behavioural Change, click here

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