Behavior change initiatives often start and end with training and telling. Unfortunately, when you show people what to do without creating the organizational context to support it, any behavior change that does happen will likely be short-lived.
For example, you can train people to have candid conversations and to provide feedback to others, but unless you create a supportive environment for such candor, people are unlikely to speak up.
Let’s take a look at the five steps to create the context for successful behavior change, beyond providing training and setting expectations for the new behavior.
Clarify the Old Behavior
People need to recognize what is the wrong or old behavior, so they know what to avoid doing – especially if it’s the current norm. When the new behavior is replacing another, clarify that they should stop doing it, even if it seems obvious.
In the example above, instead of having candid conversations, people are stewing in their frustration, complaining about people behind their backs, or escalating the issue to their boss to handle. These activities only serve to cause stress, ruin reputations and relationships, and entrench organizational silos.
Recognize the Trigger
Our habitual behaviors happen as a response to a trigger event. By becoming aware of the trigger for the old behavior, people can use it as a signal to consciously choose the new behavior instead.
In the example of providing candid feedback, we need to set the expectation for when people should have those candid conversations. The trigger may be the recognition that someone is not delivering on their promises, or it may be the frustration caused by someone else’s behavior.
Break the Old Reinforcement
Once you’ve identified the old behavior that needs to be replaced, look for the factors that reinforce it. These reinforcements may be reward systems, or the reactions or behaviors of others. Unless these cycles are broken, the old behavior continues to be encouraged.
For example, when people escalate issues to their boss instead of handling them directly, the boss acquiesces and handles it by having a conversation with the offending party (or worse yet, that person’s boss). To break this reinforcement, the managers in this situation must not take on the escalated issue themselves, and instead push it back to their employee and encourage them to handle it on their own.
Create New Reinforcement
The new behavior may need reinforcement of its own to get it started and keep it going. Find ways to encourage and reward the new behavior.
To encourage candid conversations in our example, we can give people opportunities to practice giving and receiving feedback. Managers can recognize their employees when they handle an issue by themselves. And we can highlight stories of people working together to solve challenges that may have otherwise gone unaddressed without the participants being willing to speak up.
People often hold beliefs, consciously or not, that guide their behaviors. They tell themselves a story of what will happen if they choose one path over another. Help others identify those beliefs and reframe them to support the new behavior. Change the story, so they can stop holding themselves back.
In our example, people believe that their boss has more influence than they do. They believe it’s not their place to provide feedback to their peers or to those who have more authority. But the truth is, their boss can’t provide all the details and perspective that might sway the other person, and the boss might even agree to an undesirable outcome.
No matter how much training and telling occurs, people will not change their behavior within an environment that doesn’t support or even discourages the change. Follow the five steps above to create a context that will enable people to adopt new behaviors and leave behind the old ones.