Green Beans and Ice Cream

by Guest Author on · 2 comments

Picture 3

It was suppertime, and there they were again:




My worst nightmare—yeah, it was green beans all right—again.

By the time I was a four-year-old kid, I had already sampled green beans and concluded they weren’t for me. The strings might as well have been wood chips, the way they caught in my throat as I tried to get them down.

Mom was my boss, and I was her newest employee. We had a real labor/management crisis going on. She begged, cajoled, and pleaded. But I was determined not to eat those green beans.

So I crossed my arms, frowned, and pouted, figuring she’d give up and forget about green beans, as she always had in the past.

But this time, Mom had a secret weapon. Now, there was something else on the table besides that dreaded green scourge.

“Billy Joe, if you eat your green beans you can have some…”

You guessed it.

“Ice cream!”

This sheer stroke of maternal genius changed my behavior forever. In a flash, I saw those green beans, not as an oppressive burden, but as a first-class ticket to that lovely ice cream.

Sure, Mom got what she wanted—a balanced diet for her four-year-old.

And I got ice cream.

Pretty cool.

(Thanks, Mom. You are the best!)

I’m not sure exactly when or how Mom pared back the ice cream, but somehow I came to terms with green beans and accepted them for what they are—pretty healthy and tasty by themselves (oh, Mom learned to buy stringless beans, and that didn’t hurt either).

Mom had learned how to change my behavior!

  • The 9-11-2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
  • The 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado.
  • Going “Postal”—a phenomenon named for the series of violent and lethal outbursts by disgruntled U.S. Postal Service employees during the 1980s and 1990s.

All of these events included a common factor: human behavior that shaped the world as we know it. After all, what is a country, a family, a school, a business? While the environment, buildings, equipment, and furniture are certainly important, it is the tapestry of human behavior that creates what we call “culture”

Culture is made up of many small behaviors and activities. Sometimes we say that the culture is “toxic” or “nurturing”. Many people assume that culture is what it is, and can never be changed. At best, they will say that culture change requires a long time.

I beg to differ. Ask Hosni Mubarak (Egypt’s strongman before the Arab Spring melted his power base) how fast culture can change.

Consider the sudden, unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.

Consider this common scenario in the business world:

A president unveils his new plan to turn around his failing company.

“It won’t work, sir,” comes the timid response from his staff.

“And why not?”

“The culture here won’t support it.”

“Culture! What’s that? A fuzzy word to hide a lame excuse!” retorts the frustrated leader.

Sure enough, his plan fails, torpedoed by culture.

The word culture is often hard to define. Here’s a definition I like: “Culture is a pattern of behavior which is encouraged or punished by the management system over time.”

In reality then, to change culture, all we have to do is change behavior. Attitudes follow behavior, just as my attitude about green beans changed over time, after my behavior changed.

But many have been misinformed. An old friend of mine, whom I’d not seen for 20 years, learned about my work in behavior change. In a telephone conversation, he offered up his two cents worth on the subject: “Bill, I remember my professor in psychology to this day. He told me that before you can change behavior, you have to change attitude.”

I swallowed hard. He was a good friend, and it had been a long time since we’d talked to each other.

“Crad,” I told him, “I hope you won’t be upset, but when I see you, I’d really appreciate it if you’d let me tell you why your professor was wrong.”

I guess he still likes me, because we went to lunch soon afterward, and I was able to explain to him that to change attitude, you simply have to change behavior. He even asked me to present to a group of 200 company leaders on the subject of positive reinforcement and behavior change!

No matter whether you are a parent, husband, wife, teacher, boss, supervisor, professor, cop, or anything else in life, what you often want from the people around you is the same thing: behavior change.

You want more production, quality, safety, and customer service from your employees; better test scores, homework, and study habits from your students; cleaner rooms and better grades from your kids. To get more from people, we need behavior change.

Everything we observe can be broken down into behaviors, activities, results, and culture. If culture is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, then every note from every instrument can be likened to a behavior.

Results are achieved by a myriad of behaviors. Think of your favorite dessert. That dessert is the result. But the sugar, flour, butter and other items that make up the dessert are behaviors. When we get the behaviors right, we can cook up some amazing results!

Culture, like a dessert, can be toxic or nurturing. There’s nothing like luscious banana pudding to add warmth and flavor to a meal. But a notorious husband-killer in North Carolina—known as the Black Widow—used banana pudding laced with arsenic to do away with her spouses.

So how do we achieve that nurturing culture?

Can we really navigate the murky world of the human mind? B. F. Skinner, American behaviorist, social philosopher, and poet, once wrote, “Thoughts are behaviors we haven’t learned to observe yet.”

Until technology allows it, you can’t see inside my mind, and I can’t see inside yours either. This “black hole” of human logic means that if we believe attitude must change before behavior, then we will be waiting a very, very long time to see any measurable difference in human performance. Just ask the Marlboro man how many years he read the Surgeon General’s warning printed on every pack of cigarettes he smoked. Did those produce behavior change in him? It was not until he was in the hospital, terminally ill with cancer, that his attitude about smoking finally changed. Powerful consequences had forever changed his life, his behavior, and finally, his attitude toward smoking.

Since the complex world of human thought and attitude is at present not easily read, we need another tool to understand human behavior, one that we can implement easily in today’s business world.

That tool has existed for more than 70 years. It’s a science called “behavioral analysis”.

Using some simple and easy tools, we can crack the code that reveals why people do what they do. And we can empower ourselves and others to achieve performance we never thought possible.

This book is devoted to helping you do just that.

Green Beans and Ice Cream? At first glance, they don’t sound like they go together. But this groundbreaking new book from author Bill Sims, Jr. will change forever the way you deal with your family, customers, coworkers, students, and yes, even your spouse! In Bill’s thirty year history, he has helped design more than one thousand behavior change systems that have produced tremendous gains in performance and profits at America’s top companies including Disney, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, General Motors, and Dupont. Hidden in this book you will find Bill’s “secret sauce”, and the recipe for rapid, sustainable behavior change and engagement—Positive Reinforcement (PR+). The book explains why positive reinforcement is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. Use it wisely, and performance moves off the chart. Use it poorly, and the results can be disastrous.

Green Beans & Ice Cream analyzes over 100 years of research in the field of human behavioral science, and compares it to “real world, in the trenches” true stories that Sims recounts. It points out clearly that the thing we need the most, is the thing we often receive the least—positive reinforcement and feedback from those around us. Using the techniques outlined in this book, you can master the remarkable power of positive reinforcement, and make a real difference in the world around you. This book is for everyone who must lead others. Whether in the family, the school, or the workplace, it is a “must read” for anyone who wants to improve the performance of their team. With this first book, Sims has dropped a stone in the still pond of leadership. The waves will only get bigger.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Evan April 21, 2013 at 7:33 pm

I find this a bit confusing.

Positive Reinforcement a la Skinner means reinforcement that encourages the behaviour not rewards that are pleasant.

The importance of attitudes and such (‘mediating processes’ in the jargon) have been demonstrated consistently over decades. In the story recounted, “In a flash, I saw those green beans, not as . . . ”

Does rewarding yourself for what you want to do work? Of course.
Does giving the correct information lead to improved behaviour? Not often. (Yes, this does mean that most schooling is futile.)

As to why people do what they do, this gets into some territory about correlation not being causation and much else.
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Maria April 22, 2013 at 4:50 am

Great post, positive reinforcement most definitely does work. I had similar experiences to you when I was younger, my mom used to convince me that if I ate all my vegetables I could have pudding. I used to hate veg, now I love it 🙂


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