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Nik Kinley


Director & Head of Talent Strategy

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What I learned in prison about behavioural change


For a decade, behaviour change expert and author Nik Kinley worked as a forensic psychotherapist, trying to change the behaviour of hardened prisoners. In brief article he shares what it taught him about people and how it helps him now help people in organisations change their behaviours.

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.

Trying to stop people re-offending

The people I worked with and crimes they had committed varied, but the business I was in was always the same: changing people’s behavior 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 behavior that have stayed with me.

First, 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.

One of the most significant aspects of most people’s working environment is their relationship with their manager.

Second, that changing behavior is tough. The success rates of behavior change programmes designed to stop offending behavior 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 behavior 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%. And only 19% 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 behavior is tough.

The third thing I learnt is that context matters.

I worked hard to try 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.

To change the employee, change the manager.

Because one of the most significant aspects of most people’s working environment is their relationship with their manager. To change the employee, change the manager.

One Response

  1. I’d be interested to know
    I’d be interested to know about your success rate, and how you would measure it – in that you’d ‘like to think (you) made a difference’ – but primarily, I whole heartedly agree with your thoughts here. Without support, no change stands much of a chance of being ’embedded’. Prochaska and DiClemente’s change model, developed in clinical settings, echoes this, in that it specifically has a stage for preparation which identifies social support. I use this in my coaching practice with executives – you have to have some routines, support, and rewards for doing things differently. In short, there has to be a benefit and in much organisational change, those benefits do not compensate for what’s been lost.

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Nik Kinley

Director & Head of Talent Strategy

Read more from Nik Kinley

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