The #1 Key to Changing Anyone’s Behavior

Do you ever get frustrated with any of your employees? Do they ever do anything that drives you nuts? Do they ever consistently do something that you’ve told them not to do? Well, if they have, I have some good news for you.

But first, let’s create a familiar scenario. Let’s say you, the leader, have given Bob, your employee, a task to do (for illustrative purposes, let’s say, to write a report by Friday at the close of business).

It’s now Friday afternoon at 5:00 p.m. Bob’s report isn’t on your desk. You ask Bob, “Why?” He says, “I didn’t have enough time to complete the report with everything else you asked me to do this week. But, don’t worry, I’ll have it finished and ready by close of business on Monday.”

Monday at 5:00 p.m. it’s still not done. Nor is it done by Tuesday at 5:00 p.m. Finally on Wednesday morning around 10:00 a.m. Bob saunters into your office with his report. As soon as you see the report, you start fuming. The formatting is off. The research is average at best. The spelling and grammar leave much to be desired. The whole letter is written from his perspective, not the reader’s. And the logic behind his conclusions is entirely faulty. Sound familiar?

So What Do You Do?

If you’re like most leaders/bosses, you’ll tell Bob, in no uncertain terms, to change his behavior.

  • Change the formatting to X
  • Do better research
  • Never hand me another document without using a spelling and grammar checker first
  • Start writing from the reader’s perspective, not yours
  • Learn to construct a logical argument. Your thinking is faulty.

And based on your experience, using Dr. Phil’s famous line, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

Probably not very well. Why?

The Problem With the Typical Approach

The problem with the typical approach is its assumption that to change behavior, someone simply needs to change their behavior. You stop doing behavior A by doing behavior B (you stop turning in reports with spelling errors by running spell check and changing the red underlined words).

But the problem with that assumption is that all behavior is driven by belief/thought/cognition. You can tell Bob all day long to run the spell checker, but there is a reason Bob doesn’t use the spell checker … and it’s rarely that he doesn’t know there’s a spell checker in MS Word. In fact, there’s a good chance that his spell checker is set to automatically work and his version of the report shows a number of words with a red underline under them.

Now, what underlies Bob’s behavior—in fact, what drives all of his behaviors—is a set of beliefs that if not challenged and changed, will keep him stuck where he is indefinitely.

Why? Because all behavior is driven by belief. Which means that if you want to change someone’s behaviors, you have to change their beliefs. And if you don’t change their beliefs, you’ll never get them to consistently change their behaviors.

How Do You Determine What Beliefs Are Driving Someone’s Behaviors

Well, if it were easy, we’d all be doing it! But the short answer is, you observe, you ask, and you conjecture.

1. You observe Bob’s behavior and look for patterns. If Bob is always late or only occasionally late or only late for you and not others, then there are different beliefs driving those different behaviors. For example, if Bob is always late, he may believe that time is irrelevant and that there are no consequences for being late where as if he’s only late with you, it may be that he doesn’t think there are any consequences with you, but he does with Bill.

2. You ask Bob questions to understand how he thinks. For example, if Bob turns in a report with spelling errors and you ask, “So Bob, can you help me understand why you think it’s okay to turn in work with spelling errors?” Or, “So, Bob, I’ve noticed that the last three assignments I’ve given you have all come in behind schedule, can you help me understand why you think that’s an acceptable practice?” Note: You can always tell Bob what you think, but it’s always better to pull it out of him (a la Socrates).

3. You conjecture what you think could be driving Bob’s behavior. For example, could it be that Bob doesn’t think that excellence matters? Or could it be that he had a lot of teachers over the years who gave him good grades but never corrected his spelling so he doesn’t believe that spelling matters? Or could it be that Bob thinks that the role of the teacher (i.e. the person writing a report) is to tell other people information that they (the teacher) think that they (the readers) need to know (vs. the belief that a teacher needs to start from the reader’s perspective and take them where they (the teacher) want them to go)?

Regardless of whether it’s observation or questioning or conjecture, at some point you have to make an educated guess and say, “My best guess is that the reason Bob (or whomever is your employee) isn’t completing this task the way they should is because he/she has a misbelief related to ________.”

Next You Have to Challenge Those Beliefs

Until someone’s beliefs are challenged—in a way that gets them to own those beliefs—they’ll continue to do what they’ve always done. So, how can you challenge someone’s beliefs? Well, here are a few ideas

1. You can challenge their beliefs indirectly – For example, you can challenge beliefs during a staff meeting in a generic way. You could say, “One of my observations over the years, is that they people who tend to move up the corporate ladder around here the fastest are those who pay attention to the little details of their work—like making sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors in a document. The people who don’t, tend to think that “little things” like spelling and grammar don’t matter—but they’re wrong. They keep thinking that what they think is what matters—but again, they’re wrong. It’s what their bosses think that matters. So if you grew up thinking that “little things” like spelling and grammar don’t matter, you may want to rethink that.”

2. You can challenge their beliefs directly – You can always go directly to someone and say, “Bob, over the past three months I’ve noticed a pattern that you consistently turn in your reports between one to three days late. Somehow, you’ve acquired the misbelief that timeliness doesn’t matter, that close enough is good enough—but I want you to know that’s unacceptable. If you want to stay employed and succeed around here, you’ve got to change your misbelief that “timeliness doesn’t matter” to something like, “speed matters” or “deadlines matter,” or something like that—or your time here will be very short.”

3. You can challenge their beliefs through questioning – As you hopefully noticed above, I’m a fan of the Socratic method. Instead of telling someone about their misbeliefs, you can ask them a series of questions to draw out their misbeliefs. For example, when I’m coaching someone about speaking, I’ll often ask them a series of questions about how they approach putting together their talk. One of those questions, which fits here is,

“So, when you start thinking about what you want to say, how do you start? Do you start by thinking about what you want to say? Or do you start out by thinking about the people you’re speaking to?” Note: Over 90% of speakers make the same mistake by starting out with the former belief, rather than the later. It doesn’t take long for most of them to figure out the right answer, which then leads to a very productive conversation.

4. You can challenge their beliefs through logic – Note: this choice should be made because you believe the person you’re trying to instruct is driven by logic (Myers-Briggs®, a “T”). Helping someone see the illogical nature of their belief can be very powerful if the person is moved by logic. In this case, if Bob is a logical person, you’d want to help him see that the logical conclusions that his paper comes to, just don’t hold water. Take his ideas to the extreme. Make comparisons (“If that’s true, then wouldn’t X be true?). Help him see the exceptions. Help him to see the flaws in his arguments. And then help him see how he can construct a more logical argument —using the report he just handed in.

5. You can challenge their beliefs through emotion and connection – While some people are motivated by logic, others aren’t. Knowing which is which is key to changing that person’s behaviors and beliefs. So, if Bob is a Feeler (using Myers-Briggs® terminology), then you’d want to appeal to his desire to be in relationship with someone else and to avoid conflict.

“So Bob, here’s the deal. I know you don’t think that timeliness is important. But what you may not be considering is the impact your tardiness has on Sally and Grace. They’re both waiting on your report to complete their projects. But they can’t get their work done, because your work is consistently late. So, if you won’t change your misbelief for yourself, then at least change it for Sally and Grace. They’re frustrated with you because your lateness, causes them to not only not get their work done, but it forces them to stay late. And then that affects their commute time, their time with their families, their emotional health, etc.. In other words, the choices you make don’t just affect you. They also have a negative rippling effect on a lot of other people. So what can we do to turn that around?”

So there you have it—a short course on how to change anyone’s behavior by changing their beliefs.

The question is, “What are you going to do about it?” Who on your staff is doing something you don’t want them to do in a way you don’t want them to do it? Once you have that person in mind, start walking through the process I laid out for you above.

And never ever forget,

“In the long run, you won’t change someone’s behavior A by simply telling them to do behavior B. You have to identify and then change the current misbelief to a correct belief, if you want long-term behavioral change.”

To your accelerated success!

P.S. If you want help knowing how to speed read your people and how to adjust your leadership to who they are, check out my course on Personality Type Leadership: How to Lead People Who Don’t Think, Act and Feel Like You