Influencing Behaviour Change as a Leader
Behaviour change is often seen as a gold standard for leadership development. Getting people to grasp what effective leadership is cognitively is one thing; enabling them to lead more effectively is another. As a manager the same is true. Getting team members to understand how they might do their job better is easier than helping them do their job better. Behaviour change is hard to measure. It’s much easier to judge if somebody liked or did not like a leadership development intervention, say, than it is to judge if that intervention had an impact on their day-to-day work.
From my experience working with senior leaders in a range of industries over the past decade, it is time to demote behaviour change – or at least how behaviour change is often seen – from its vaunted position. Far from a gold standard, a too strong focus on behaviour change in either development programmes or management practice, can lead to a framing of the entire concept of leadership in a way that is likely to entrench unhelpful ideas about leadership and organisations and make everybody’s work harder.
Behaviour change of the individual
Whenever you walk into a session as a consultant, or into an office, meeting room or online space as a manager, you encounter diverse and complex humans. Even if you work with the same person for many years, your interaction with them is just a tiny fraction of what constitutes them as a person. When framed this way, the idea that you might be able to change their behaviour – let alone that of somebody you know even less – is hard to swallow, if not absurd. Let’s say such change would be possible – what would give sufficient information and permission to make us feel entitled and equipped to take on such work? Before behaviour change could be considered, empathy, understanding and trust would need to be layered in such delicate patterns as to make such change almost impossibly hard for most of us to attain.
People do change. You don’t behave the same as you did 10 years ago or how you will 10 years from today. But change is often barely perceptible, and influenced by countless factors. We can plan where we want to be in 10 years – what job we might like, where we might want to live – but would find it much harder to plan or quantify how we will be in the world at that time.
Organisations hire consultants – indeed hire managers – because they are in some way dissatisfied with the status quo. They want change. A consultant who tells clients that they don’t believe in behaviour change would quickly run out of clients. Change matters and I want to enable my clients to get to the heart of where their organisation is looking to change and realise their ambitions to do things better. At the same time, I also don’t want to sell false promises or lead others to believe that once our work together ends they will somehow have acquired transformational superpowers. Organisational change that endures is ambitious but realisable, meaningful but incremental, challenging but compassionate.
The question, then, is how to move forward in a world where behaviour change in reasonable timeframes is at best improbable and at worst undesirable, and where organisations are impatient for change.
The fundamentals of behaviour change
As a leadership and organisation development practitioner, for me the answer lies in the kind of behaviours that should be focused on. People in my line of work and the leaders and managers we work with must bring behaviour into sharper focus, but – and this is my central argument – at a fundamental as opposed to a surface level.
Surface-level behaviour is the more obvious side of behaviour. The kind of thing that organisations often find easier to identify, such as output level or punctuality. Without question, these can be crucial aspects of any role. We don’t want a paramedic who has a lazy attitude to timekeeping or a postal delivery person who delivers only half their load. But in many roles, especially that involve handling complex challenges, fundamental behaviours, such as empathy, curiosity, and attentiveness, matter more.
These are behaviours that are hard to measure. How do you track empathy? Chart curiosity? Gauge attentiveness? The answer is: through those very elements themselves. By learning what deeply matters to the people you work with, investigating more deeply, and paying more attention. Once you do these things, you begin to see the complexity and nuance in the behaviour of those around you. You realise how far from you it is to seek to change their behaviour, you learn more about your own behaviour and you begin as a result to witness those reconfigurations of relationships between and amongst teams that you were so keen to instigate in the first place. That is where real change occurs, and organisations that want to build the capacity of their people to take on tough leadership work would do well to look more closely at how much they seek to measure the fundamentals and where they get tripped up paying too much attention to the surface level.
Believing we can change others could well give us a sense of power and authority, effectiveness and accomplishment, but it is the wrong reason to engage in organisation development and a hopeless task. Better to engage in organisation development from pessimism about what’s possible mixed with optimism that the diversity of human experience and behaviour, when drawn out in the right ways, has all the answers needed to solve the most complex organisational challenges.