Changing Behavior

One of the oldest observations about persuasion is that most of it is wasted. We spend energy convincing people who are already convinced, or we try to convince people who will never come around.

The point is to identify the people who are actually persuadable, who might actually change their thinking, and then figure out the right approach for accomplishing that.

While this perspective was originally developed by ancient Greek philosophers, it's as relevant today as ever, especially in the workplace.

Because the fact is, employees generally break down into three categories: those who never give management any worries, those who probably have no future in the organization, and those in the middle, whose performance or behavior is not optimum - but there's a chance to change that.

This blog is about that middle group, and how to use their emotional experience to change their attitudes in ways that improve teamwork and productivity.

Decades in business as a clinical psychologist have taught me that most managers or leaders who have someone like this on their team feel a strong urge to do one of two things: ignore it and hope it goes away, or confront it with rules and punishments. Neither of these is likely to work, for reasons we'll explore in a moment.

What managers really need to do is get results, and that means getting everyone on the team to pull together in a positive way. Given that better performance is the ultimate goal, what can we do with a person who seems to be holding others back?


The first impulse, to ignore the problem, is understandable, because few of us enjoy confronting people. But avoiding conflict does not fix the situation for a whole array of reasons, which you can read in my post entitled ''Avoiding Conflict Avoidance."

The impulse to change someone's behavior by invoking authority, rules or punishments is also understandable.

"I'm going to stop her from spreading gossip!" "I'm going to make him hit his deadlines all the time, not most of the time!" "I'm not going to let those two turn staff meetings into endless debates!" It's just human nature to feel frustrated when one or a few people are obviously holding back a shared enterprise.

Unfortunately, any change in employee behavior you achieve with rewards and punishments is likely to be temporary. Thousands of studies in the field of motivation teach us that rewards and punishments do help to spur people to change their behavior for a while. But long-term? They're mostly ineffective. It doesn't mean they shouldn't be part of an organization's culture, but they are not going to help you permanently change someone's thinking or commitment to the team's mission.

People who get a speeding ticket do slow down for a while. But the number one indicator that someone is likely to get a speeding ticket is that they got one before. Whatever it is that makes the person break the speed limit rules did not change. The first ticket suppresses the behavior, but it doesn't affect the underlying reason.

And that's why the best way to change someone's behavior is to stop focusing on changing their behavior. It rarely works. What does work is to change peoples' experience at work.

Whether you look at this from a psychological perspective, or philosophical, or spiritual, or even from the point of view of successful selling or implementing public policy, the principle is the same: when people experience things differently, particularly with a change in how it feels emotionally, there is almost always an accompanying change in their behavior.

There are plenty of examples of this in recent history. Take smoking. When the first anti-smoking campaigns came out, people laughed at them. It was obvious that the government was trying to scare people into quitting with photos of sick people and horribly disfigured lungs.

If you smoked because you wanted to look cool, it was also cool to laugh at the posters.

But slowly the "cool" fell away from smoking as the statistics mounted up. People's experience shifted to a new attitude: you're more cool if you're healthy than you are if you're addicted to something.

That new experience led to a range of new behaviors, including quitting smoking and demanding non-smoking areas. With fewer fellow smokers and fewer places to indulge, smokers were also getting a change of experience. Now they weren't just uncool, they were pariahs. Finally, it was just not worth it for most people.

You obviously don't have a few decades to change the experience of an employee, but there are some powerful steps you can take. The field of psychology refers to these steps in general as "cognitive reframing," in case you want to read into the field. They're not psychologically complex, but they do require some observation and self-awareness on your part, and you need to sustain them for a while to get results.

The first step is to recognize both your role and actions in the situation.

The fact is that people deliver better performance for managers they experience as good leaders.

I've seen this many times in organization I worked while they went through a change of leadership. Each new leader would say the same things, provide the same reassurances, deliver the same message, when they took over.

Yet, the outcomes were vastly different. Under some new leaders, morale and productivity increased. Under others, morale plummeted and the work suffered. The teams were the same, the rules were the same, the purpose was the same. The leadership made the difference.


So what was it about the successful leaders that that changed employee behavior for the better? They acknowledged their vulnerability. When they didn't know the answer, they would invite other peoples' perspectives.

They explicitly communicated that they valued the wisdom and experience of others, which empowered their employees to make more of an impact than in the past. In other words, there was suddenly much more upside for positive behavior, and more downside to holding out while others embraced the new opportunity.

In contrast, the unsuccessful leaders acted like they knew everything already. They managed everything from the top down, without much consideration of the people in the organization. Their employees in turn felt shut out and devalued, and those feelings went right into their work.

So look for ways to change the experience of your people regarding the person leading them. Ask yourself if you are managing in a way that makes people want to serve the team's purpose, want to meet deadlines, and want to maintain a great working environment. If they feel that way, they'll change their behavior.

If this doesn't seem like the right avenue to you, ask yourself if you really are engaged with the person as one human to another. There are some good tips for doing this in my blog post entitled "Inquiring Questions." Some people need their authority figures to be a bigger part of their emotional lives.

They need to know that you've noticed what they're doing and want to engage with them to adjust. They need to know that they're not just "on the team," they are an individual contributor who matters to you.

And for those colleagues or employees whose actions are not aligned with organizational goals? In case you have the impulse to try to focus on why the person is acting out, here is some advice: don't. I'm not suggesting you count it out completely, but at best you will be guessing, with higher odds of being wrong than being right.

For often the roots of troubling behavior in a business setting don't have anything to do with the business. Attempts to understand why people behave the way they do is not likely to change their actions.

It is far more productive to focus on changing the person's experience. You've got someone behaving in ways that don't serve the team, and they're getting feedback that's not making them change that behavior. They're frustrating you with the timing or quality of their work.

They know how to disrupt a meeting, to irritate others, to become a distraction. But the warnings, brush-offs and co-worker complaints are not making the person change the behavior. So you change yours.

Instead of reacting with a negative face, posture and tone, instead of coming down on the person, try what Carl Rogers, the pioneering psychologist, called "unconditional positive regard." You accept this person. You don't reject them or their point of view. You don't focus on their flaws.

You banish your frustration or intellectual catalog of the person's bad behavior, and just focus on them as positively as you can. You don't even have to say that much. Engage them with open, solution focused questions such as "What would you do in my situation?" or "What would make our working environment here more successful for you and others?”

You don't have to actually act on what the person says (though you might learn something interesting). What you want is for them to be in a totally different experience: they've done something that usually gets them busted, and instead here they are getting to influence management!

It is common in my work that a group of managers all identify someone in their organization that they would rather not have to deal with. My assignment for them: Change your attitude about that person. Learn something likeable about that person, something that would never have come to light without shifting your perspective.


It does not take long before managers begin noticing shifts in the behavior of their target person. When we change other peoples' experiences by changing our reactions to them, their outlook changes. They no longer have to behave certain ways to get attention or get recognized. They feel seen, and that feeling influences how they behave.

When engaging in changing attitudes, changing experiences, it's essential to follow through consistently. Don't give up too soon. Some of the managers

I work with discover it takes more than a dozen interactions before the process begins to show results.

Remember, the cultural shift in attitudes about smoking took decades. Fortunately, you won't need decades to change attitudes in people in your organization. As human beings they are wired for connection. Though they may not always act like it, they want to be part of a successful group endeavor.

They want to grow and gain mastery at work. It's highly unlikely that they consciously want to disappoint you or others. You need only facilitate a shift in their experience, and that will benefit both the individual and the entire team.