Change – the word alone conjures up negative emotions. Whether in your personal life or in business, change can be one of the hardest challenges we face, yet we do it every day. Knowingly and unknowingly, our daily interactions with people change our behavior, sometimes for the better and sometimes not as much. But fear not – once you understand human behavior as a subject of scientific study, it will add to your ability to get the most out of your life and the behavior and performance of those around you.
Let me begin by dismantling a few commonly viewed barriers to change. Probably the most widely used is “that’s just the way he is.” Some assume you can’t change people’s personalities; they are who they are and nothing you do will change that. Not true. Personality is a collection of behaviors that, when they happen often enough, become habits. When you change one or more behaviors, the individual’s personality will change as well.
Another myth around change is that people have to want to change. While you may not want to change a particular habit, it changes anyway. Habits get either stronger or weaker, and it happens every day. Every day you come to work, you leave a different person. The problem is the change is very small and usually imperceptible. However, after many days, weeks or months, if you receive the same consequences every day, you may notice the change. You are constantly influenced by what others do and say. In the right environment, people have the ability to change even if they think they can’t.
In the simplest of answers, the secret to achieving and sustaining meaningful change is to understand behavior. What happens at work (and in life) is the result of behavior. So, when it comes to business, the key to improvement lies in changing the specific behavior of employees that will lead to the change you seek. When behavior stays the same, change in outcomes is almost impossible.
There are two factors that influence behavior: antecedents (those things that come before a behavior that suggest a change) and consequences (what happens to you as a result after a behavior). One of the biggest reasons for failure in change initiatives is that organizations tend to focus too heavily on antecedents. The truth is antecedents, things like training or telling someone what to do, do not cause behavior to occur; consequences do. Antecedents may get behavior started but it’s the consequences that create the changes. Advice, lectures, threats, admonitions, policies and procedures are all antecedents, and if you say to an employee, “Do it this way and it will be easier” and the employee finds it easier immediately, the next time he or she does it, he or she will do it the easier way. If it turns out it is not easier immediately, not only will the employee not change, but he or she will be less likely to take your advice in the future.
One problem with most attempts to change one’s own behavior or that of others is that there is an over-reliance on antecedents to change behavior with little or no thought or delivery of consequences. We plead, cajole, threaten and get emotional, but how often do we follow through? Not enough.
The other problem is that we plan future rather than immediate consequences. We tell people “meet this goal and you will be rewarded.” “Work hard and we’ll discuss that promotion during your performance review.” What we know about human behavior is that people respond better to smaller and frequent immediate consequences than larger, future uncertain consequences.
When you think about it, current habits are easy. You don’t even have to think about them. Changing means you will have to give up the easy habit for one that promises better payoffs in the distant future. If you are having a difficult time with change, it is probably that the consequences don’t favor it.
For a deeper look at habits and behaviors, you may find Other People’s Habits helpful. It details how to use positive reinforcement to pinpoint and bring about the behaviors you desire in others and in yourself. When you are able to understand how the environment influences and modifies behavior, you will be able to change old, bad or unsatisfying habits to those that increase personal satisfaction and enjoyment. Even better, you will be able to help others accomplish that same level of satisfaction and enjoyment in their lives at work, at home and in their community.