Mike MacDonagh's Blog

Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

Why do people change their behaviours?

Business change is all about changing people’s behaviours. To understand how to change a business we therefore need to understand how people change. There are three main mechanisms for behavioural change, pain, push and pull. Finally I’ll talk about a balanced approach to creating an environment ripe to change.

Often characterised as “the stick”. Pain based change involves people either feeling some form of discomfort and acknowledging the situation. Obviously people can be in a bad situation but in denial, managing people to acceptance of the truth of their position is a complex skill to which all of the holistic communication techniques apply.

There are a number of dimensions for pain in a business change context. Organisational pain refers to a problem felt by an organisation. Organisational pain is a poor motivator for individuals unless they are exceptionally engage which is why many change programmes actioned by management in response to a perceived organisational pain can fail to get buy in from teams and individuals.

Team pain refers to difficulty faced by a team collectively when trying to function. Often team pain will be manifested by multiple team members raising the same problems in retrospectives or reviews. Team’s will often innovate in process or tooling locally to overcome team pain and apply peer pressure to individuals in the team who don’t personally share the pain. Team pain can and should be harnessed to drive changing behaviours, if it isn’t managed it will have an effect anyway but it’s unlikely to be the effect you want. If an individual is well aligned to the team then team pain will also be individual pain.

Individual pain is a discomfort faced by an individual which can lead to poor morale, resistance to team or organisational actions and people leaving. Individual pain can be an excellent pressure for changing behaviour but I believe it’s unethical to deliberately cause pain in business change activities.

Often individual pain is caused when the team and the individual want to pursue different practices. That is if the individual is not-aligned to the rest of the team there will be both individual pain and team pain. The team is likely to exert pressure on the individual to align to the team, this can be positive but also very negative if the team aren’t careful in their approach. When someone’s in pain, adding more pain to their situation is not an effective way to drive them to change.

Push motivation is the least effective form of motivation to make lasting change in behaviours. Push motivation, also characterised as “the stick” and usually the direct cause of pain in an organisation, team and individual is simply telling people what to do. This can have an immediate effect but it’s often only paying lip-service to the change and will quickly regress when the push directive is removed. A continuous push directive that isn’t aligned to solving individual pain will increase individual pain and make people leave.

Sometimes managers think this is the best approach, and that people should be able to deal with it and JFDI. However if you need to be persuaded of how wrong this approach is consider the following thought experiment:

Let’s suppose that a professional working environment is based on mature relationships between adults. Let’s change the context to an inter-personal relationship between mature adults: you and your spouse/partner/whatever/cat. If you want your partner to change their behaviour (say they don’t line up the food cans so the labels all show perpendicular to the cupboard door or some other OCD request) be it a reasonable or unreasonable request do you think the most effective way to get them to permanently change their behaviour is to just tell them “Do this!” and if they don’t just keep telling them? Most people will consider this a dysfunctional relationship between two mature adults and a bad behaviour on the part of the directive partner. So what’s the difference in a business context? To my mind very little.

This is an example of “reframing“, changing the context to get a different or wider sense of the interaction.

A change in environment or external factors can also create a push motivation.

Pull is the most effective single method of long term behaviour change. This method involves creating a positive motivation for change towards the desired end goal, often categorised as “the carrot” however it’s just as much a minefield as the other motivators. Creating pull motivations is very difficult to get right and done badly can actually just cause pain, or feel like a push to people.

Pull motivations need to be targeted at team and individual level, they can’t be done at organisational level unless everyone is deeply engaged in the organisation (i.e. a small team in a small company that own the company and will directly reap the rewards of it’s success – unless you’re just about to start the next google this isn’t you). Note that offering people financial rewards like bonuses, a classic example of managers trying to motivate behaviour in a direction of their choice is actually demotivating and leads to negative results.

For pull motivation to be effective it needs to be aligned to human behaviour, not traditional managerial behaviour. Areas of potential alignment include:

  • Biological imperatives – things like food, sex, going to the toilet etc. unlikely to be harnessed in (most) businesses
  • Life-cycle progression – things like growing up, getting married, having a mid-life crisis etc. there actually is an alignment possible here in terms of professional maturity. As people spend time in an organisation they want to progress their careers as part of their life-cycle progression. Providing mechanisms for career development aligned to organisational and business change goals provides a pull motivation.
  • Inspiration – which I’ll tackle outside of a bullet point.

Teachers, coaches, preachers, salespeople are always trying to motivate people by inspiring them. People spend countless hours trying to craft messages that will get into people’s heads and inspire them to change their behaviour. The holistic communication blog series is all about understanding the complexities of language that help us form these messages properly and effectively.

Think back on your life and consider when you’ve been inspired… Was it something you read? Saw on tv? Heard someone say? Some will be cynical and say they’ve never been inspired in which case we should ask why they’re doing the job they’re doing. If someone has been content just to fall into situations without ever expressing any desire or interest in choosing a direction they’re likely to be a business change managers best friend due to their lack of free will. It’s easy to mock a lack of inspiration like this but it’s very hard to quantify what will be inspirational

Aligning messages with individuals current direction will reinforce their belief systems and can be seen as inspirational, similarly aligning with their life-cycle progression may be considered inspirational. Establishing rapport and being congruent can help us be inspirational. More on that in a later topic, I’ll update the link here later. If we could bottle “inspiration” we’d make millions or at least sell a lot of self-help books

In business change terms to make effective pull motivations we should strive to inspire the organisation towards changing their behaviours

The balance
Behavioural change is complex, I’ve not even talked about resistance and over-coming it, just the motivations that drive change. To manage change in an organisation means understanding these motivators and, I believe, creating a balance between them so that the environment is fertile for individuals to choose to change in the intended direction. My favourite recipe is:

  • a tiny bit of team pain that makes it just harder for people to stay where they are than change to something else, this should increase slowly over the long term naturally as more of the community move from the old state to the new state as peer pressure increases
  • a tiny bit of push, just enough to let people know that the organisation is giving them permission to change and wants them to, but not a directive
  • a lot of pull
    • alignment of business change to career development so that as people adopt the target behaviours they are improving/progressing their life – gaining seniority and acknowledged value
    • inspiration to draw people towards the target behaviours, the ultimate goal being to make adopting the change so attractive that people will choose to do it and tell all of their peers about doing so

Achieving this recipe is difficult but done correctly we can observe a movement in an organisation, led by the community and engaging the business rather than a change programme imposed on the community by the business.

So if you want to make a change or are in the middle of one currently, express as accurately and inspirationally as you can what you want to change and then consider what motivates that change, for the organisation, teams and individuals. Think about why and how you’ve changed your behaviour in the past to see if you can define the elements that made the change compelling for you.

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.


2 responses to “Why do people change their behaviours?

  1. Pingback: Linguistics of business change: Holistic communication, ethics and morals « The Mac Daddy

  2. Pingback: Empowerment vs. Autonomy « The Mac Daddy

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