What is required to change behaviour?

What is required to change behaviour?

Robert den BroederBehaviour is a critical success factor in any organization and yet – traditionally – many frameworks such as ITIL®, SCRUM or LEAN, fail to address behaviour change.

The issue is that many senior leaders and managers use negative consequences to encourage the desired behaviour, but these don’t work sustainably and people will almost always revert back. Managers need the ability to pinpoint, shape and mould behaviour and the trick is about what consequences managers choose when the right or wrong behaviour is displayed.

Changing Behaviour

This requires an innate understanding of the mechanics of people in the workplace and how their behaviours work. While it’s simple to learn how people work, the hard part is using that to your advantage, which requires understanding how to use behavioural consequences and strong leadership.

As Daniels and Bailey state in their book ‘Performance Management[1]’: “Consequences are the single most effective tool a manager has for improving employee performance and morale. As amazing as it may sound, there is one straightforward answer to the problems of poor quality, low productivity, high costs and disgruntled employees: better and more frequent use of behavioural consequences.”

First you must pinpoint what behaviour you want from people. What action do you need them to take and what do you want to see more of? Most workplace behaviour, both desired and undesired, is habitual; people have learned what they need to do, and can get away with doing or not doing! Behaviour is governed by what happens to us; positive consequences are more likely to reinforce behaviour and less likely if the consequences are negative. If you want to change behaviour, you must change the consequences of the behaviour in question. Always take the performer´s perspective!

Managers erring towards setting negative consequences for undesired behaviour tends to work in the short term only before undesired behaviour returns. This is because punishing undesired behaviour only suppresses it. When you stop punishing, the undesired behaviour will recover. Instead, rewarding desired behaviour will tend to have more long-term benefits for both the manager and the employees.

What is required to change behaviour? - AXELOS Blog Post

The four consequences of behaviour

There are four consequences of behaviour that could be used as a management tool to actually change behaviour:

1. An action that gives the performer a desired result

The behaviour occurs and it produces something the performer wants. This can be an object, an event or an action. Because of the positive consequence for the performer, chances are the behaviour will occur more often in the future. People want to demonstrate the behaviour, because it produces a consequence they want.

2. Avoiding something the performer doesn’t want

The behaviour occurs to terminate or reduce the intensity of an adverse event. E.g. the car in front of you brakes so you also brake to avoid an accident – it’s a behaviour triggered by something you don’t want to happen. People feel they must demonstrate the behaviour in order to avoid negative consequences. The same principles also applies to deadlines. People start performing to meet a deadline in order to avoid any negative consequence of not meeting the deadline.

3. An action that gives the performer an undesired result

The behaviour produces a consequence the performer does not want. This type of consequence immediately stops the behaviour – you only put your hand on a hot stove once in your life!

4. An action that gets the performer no result

The behaviour causes the performer to lose something of value and the desired results are not produced. If the desired result doesn’t happen or you lose something of value in the process the behaviour becomes extinct. For example, you call someone and only ever get their voicemail; they don’t respond to emails eventually you stop trying to contact them at all – the behaviour has become extinct.

The first two consequences are what drive behaviour: a manager can use these to their advantage to though most managers choose the second option; it’s easier to make people avoid something they don’t want – working weekends, working overtime – but this makes employees anxious and they’ll simply continue the undesired behaviour when you’re not around.

Praise and compliments for certain behaviour will encourage its repetition, build morale, motivate and engage workers and creates a better work culture. This is how you maintain desired behaviour in the workplace. Managers are conditioned to find faults. We need to break the cycle and focus on reinforcing the behaviour we want to see from everyone.

Take the IT service desk as an example: a large part of its role is taking calls and registering incidents. Typically, there are more incidents than those are logged because logging them is a behaviour the IT service desk technician would rather avoid. When you ask them about it, they will always find a reason for not logging calls. To change it you need to find out why they don’t log the incident. Are we talking about ´can´t do´, or ´won´t do´. Manage the can´t do´s and change the behavioural consequences for logging calls.

ITIL has a specific goal: bringing IT service and delivery in alignment with business, customers, suppliers and providers – this is organizational change. However, there are 1,001 ways of doing it and the very best are referred to in AXELOS’ latest addition to ITIL, ITIL Practitioner.

Most performance issues are motivational issues. People can do better if they want to. It is your responsibility to create an environment that allows employees to maximize performance. Once you have created that environment, reinforce desired behaviour as much as you can. This motivates all involved and, in doing so, you change the behaviour sustainably.

See our ITIL section for more information.

[1] Aubrey C. Daniels & Jon S. Bailey – Performance Management, page 107.

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