What I learned in prison about change

Three lessons prisons taught me about what it takes to change behaviour

2 min read

I spent the first six years of my professional life in retail, managing shops and supermarkets. Then I did what anyone does at that stage in their career. I went to prison.

Not as a prisoner, mind you. I trained as a psychotherapist and spent the best part of a decade working with people caught up in the criminal justice system, both in and out of prison. Life sentence prisoners (usually murderers), persistent young offenders, addicted offenders, and both adult and juvenile sex offenders. The people I worked with and crimes they had committed varied, but the business I was in was always the same: changing people’s behaviour and trying to prevent re-offending.

Nigh on fifteen years ago, I moved back into business, working first as a consultant and then in large global corporates. Looking back on my time in prison, it was without doubt some of the most difficult, challenging work I have ever done. But it taught me three important things about people and how they change their behaviour that have stayed with me.

First, the process through which change happens is fairly consistent. that the mental processes I observed working with serious offenders were not much different from those I observe in highly accomplished executives. People can be wildly different, but the way the mind works is pretty much the same.

Second, that changing behaviour is tough. The success rates of behaviour change programmes designed to stop offending behaviour amongst persistent, hardened criminals are not high. Amongst one-time offenders, the success rates are of course higher. But the success rates of development and behaviour change programmes amongst employees and senior executives are not much better. Even the most wildly optimistic estimates of how much learning from these events is transferred into real behaviours back in the workplace do not go much beyond 34 percent. And only 19 percent of HR professionals believe that the coaching going on in their business is effective. And the reason for this is that whether you are a seasoned criminal or experienced executive (or both) changing your behaviour is tough.

The third thing I learnt is that context matters. I worked hard to help people not to reoffend. I like to think that I made a difference. But I learned and never forgot that what happened to people outside the treatment room and prison was more influential and important than what happened within them and anything I did. I learned that no matter how well intentioned, well treated and rehabilitated a criminal was, if he or she had little family support, poor personal relationships, friends who were criminals, no job and housing problems, it was much harder to stay on the right side of the law. The context and environment that people live and function in day-to-day is critical for new behaviours. It acts as a kind of life-support machine. Or not. Because it can also kill new, desired behaviours stone dead.

It is this last learning that fifteen years later shapes my work perhaps more than any other. That if you want to develop someone and change their behaviour, their context – the environment and situations in which they operate – has to support the new, desired behaviour. If it does not, then the chances are that the new behaviour will not hold. And at work, that, typically, means one thing: the manager. Because one of the most significant aspects of most people’s working environment is their relationship with their manager. So, if you to change an employee, change the manager.

© Nik Kinley, 2024

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