How to Change Behavior

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.   - W. Edwards Deming

The only constant is change… A nice little play on words that you likely have heard if you are in an organization that focuses in any way on change management. I first heard the phrase almost 10 years ago, and I am sure it was said for years before then.

  Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Unsurprisingly, it still rings true. Change is really the only thing you can depend on – change in technology, in process, in leadership, in strategy, in priorities. All of those situations also require people to change their behaviors, but that part is much easier said than done.

Asking people to change what they do and/or how they do it – especially something they have been doing for a long time – is basically asking them to take a leap of faith and trust that the new way of doing things is exponentially better than how things are done today. Why should they trust you? What makes you think that things will be any better after the change? Why do they even need to change in the first place?

In many cases, people’s natural reaction to change is to resist it. People want control in their lives, and the fear of the unknown gets to them. But lucky for you, there are research-based techniques to help you guide your team through behavior change.

In order to successfully change behavior, ask yourself the following questions.

Do people know what they need to do differently? At the very least, people need to be told what changes are expected of them. How else would they know what to do? Identifying key stakeholders of the change, determining what impacts the change has on them, and communicating what behavior changes are expected is a key first step to aligning people toward a new way of doing things.

Do people have the skills and competencies they need to do things differently? Once people know what they need to do, you need to make sure they are trained on new skills and/or coached on the job so that they are set up for success. As you complete your stakeholder assessment, think about the level of magnitude of the change in order to understand how much training and coaching would be involved.

Do people have the chance to do things differently? After you communicate and train people on the new behaviors, then you need to give them the opportunity to perform. Make sure they are put in a position to be successful. Give them the right tools, send them to the right meetings, introduce them to the right people, and ask them if there are any other barriers that you can help remove.

So, has behavior changed yet? The answer is likely no. What I describe above are called antecedents – the things that need to happen to help set people up for success. If people know what they need to do, have the opportunity to do it, and have the skills/competencies to excel, then you have done all the setting up that you can. But that will only get you 20% of the way there. This last question is the most important one.

Are people receiving positive and/or negative consequences (that matter to them) based on whether or not they are changing behavior? You – and more importantly – senior leaders and project sponsors need to hold people accountable for behavior change. If people are demonstrating the desired behaviors, then reward them. If people are not changing their behaviors, then someone with authority needs to provide negative consequences to incite them to do things differently. Every person is different in terms of what motivates her, so apply these positive and negative consequences thoughtfully.

What I describe above sounds like a science experiment. Well, it is not too far off. Applied behavior science at its finest, my friends!

If you have any change management responsibilities, or even if you are dealing with a difficult team or individual, you can use these techniques to help shape and eventually change behavior in support of whatever you are trying to achieve. And remember to focus more on the consequences – both positive and negative – to really make a difference.