How to Change Employee Behavior
It doesn’t take long in management before you find yourself trying to change someone’s behavior. If you’re lucky, it’s a small skill change. Often, though, you’re trying to encourage a larger, personality driven change. Good managers try all kinds of ways to encourage others to change, usually through support and challenge, as I wrote about here.
Yet many efforts to change others are unsuccessful. After all, it’s hard enough to change ourselves even when we’re motivated. It can leave us wondering if we can actually change an employee’s behavior at all, and further, could we be making the issue worse?
The way we coach employees may be part of the problem. We place considerable value on the power of motivation, assuming that employees will change if we make a good case. We spend our energy showing someone why they must change, when chances are, they already know. Additionally, we tend to impose our coaching on others without invitation. We may not fully understand the behavioral issue within a broader context and miss the larger picture. All of which can be demoralizing.
Further, as Harvard’s Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey point out, people often possess an uncommunicated, competing commitment to a change. A competing commitment is a subconscious goal that directly conflicts with an individual’s stated goal. Take, for example, Jason, a project manager who’s failing to bring a high-profile assignment to completion. While he’s a smart, talented, hardworking guy who regularly volunteers to lead smaller projects, he may actually be slacking on this big assignment because he’s worried about the risk of such a visible role at his company.
When employees have a competing commitment, they are immune to change. All of our best protestations fall on deaf ears because the employee is committed more strongly to not changing – for reasons he or she finds highly valid.
There’s no doubt that there are a number of factors at play that make change difficult. Yet people do change, and they do so in predictable patterns. You can enhance your ability to support change in others by expanding your repertoire of strategies. Here are five ways to support effective change in others.
Adopt a practice of providing both coaching and feedback.
As Karlyn Borysenko explains, there’s a difference between feedback and coaching, and both are required to help an employee make important changes: “Feedback is top-down communication that is intended to immediately adjust behavior. Coaching is a collaborative, ongoing process that is intended to develop employees over time.”
In order to help your employee achieve performance improvement, “you want to immediately correct behaviors that are getting in the way of success and help them to develop the skills that will move their professional career forward.”
Put the ball in the employee’s court.
No one can force another person to change – it has to be voluntary. A manager can, however, greatly help the employee see the path for change.
Provide coaching and feedback, then give the employee space. No one likes to be forced into doing things, especially when it comes to altering entrenched behaviors. If the employee feels like you’re micromanaging the change, they will often shut down and placate you.
Focus on one issue at a time.
Executive coaches structure engagements so that clients must focus on no more than three issues in a typical six-month engagement. And sometimes that’s too many. When it comes to development, focus is everything.
A manager may have identified a number of issues with an employee, but trying to fix all of them at once will create more disaffection and overwhelm than change. Identify the primary behavior you’d like altered and work on that only. If you have a few things you’d like the person to work on, then prioritize what’s most important so they can time order the changes.
Identify the barriers to the employee’s success.
In Harvard Business Review, Joseph Grenny says that great managers focus on helping employees overcome their “ability barriers” rather than placing too much emphasis on their lack of motivation.
For example, if an employee has trouble staying organized, it may be more effective to provide her with tools and strategies for managing her calendar and to-do list. This approach works much better than assuming that the issue is simply a matter of motivation. As Grenny aptly puts it, “If you try to motivate people who lack ability, you don’t create change; you create depression.”
Focus on the bigger picture.
Context is critical. Most of the time, poor behavior doesn’t operate in a vacuum; there are likely other individuals or circumstances supporting it. How are other employees reacting to this employee’s behavior? Is he receiving promotions and accolades that make him think he is excelling? Are the expectations of your workplace too demanding? Does he share certain big assumptions that affect his views of the workplace? What competing commitments might be present?
Take a step back from the behavior and look at the larger context in which he’s operating. Being able to see the environmental contributors, and to acknowledge them with the employee, can open the door to a deeper conversation about how to move forward.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. Find her at kristihedges.com and @kristihedges.
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