Most of Today’s Serious Problems Are Rooted in Human Behavior
Chronic problems that persist despite numerous efforts to eradicate them are almost always rooted in human behavior. Here’s why. In a world filled with a never-ending stream of new advances in technology and improvements in leadership methods, problems that can be solved with an invention, a well-delivered speech, or an influx of capital and equipment have already been solved. If articulating an argument or writing a check will eliminate a nagging challenge, you can bet that challenge has already been put to bed.
However, if the problem you’re facing requires a change in what people have been doing (often for years), that’s a very different matter. Behavioral-based challenges typically won’t go away with a single-pronged intervention. That’s because human behavior doesn’t change easily. It can be relatively simple to erect a building, invent a new process, or create a new policy, but to get people to change their old habits, well, now you’re facing a real challenge.
But how do you get people to change their behavior? How do you get yourself to change?
Look to the Experts Who Can Change Human Behavior
It turns out there are already influencers out there who have found ways to both motivate and enable others to change what they do. These scholars and practitioners have researched, documented, and repeated their successes. Here are a few:
Dr. Albert Bandura of Stanford University is the leading expert in helping people delay gratification. His insights can be applied to everything from drug abuse, to excessive internet shopping, to eating addictions.
Dr. Ethna Reid has identified the finest methods for teaching everything from reading comprehension to biology. Apply her methods to any group of struggling students and they’ll soon climb to the top of the academic heap.
Dr. Mimi Silbert knows how to keep convicted felons from returning to prisons. Follow her influence methods and recidivism drops from 67 percent to less than 10 percent.
Dr. Don Berwick and his team have saved more than 100,000 lives by reducing hospital errors. His team is now instituting a “million-lives campaign.”
Thank heavens for these wonderful influencers.
Their Influence Strategies Can Be Applied to Business
The additional good news is that my coauthors and I have organized the work of the world’s most effective influencers into an integrated model and rich repertoire of strategies for creating change. And the material can be readily applied to businesses.
What executive hasn’t faced a problem that can only be resolved through changes in how people act? For example, safety never improves with speeches or banners alone. Safety only improves when people start acting in safer ways. The same is true for quality, costs, time-to-market, and any other key business outcomes. Leaders can create new policies, put new procedures in place, and talk endlessly about change, but if living, breathing human beings don’t put the ideas into practice—if they don’t change their behavior—nothing gets better.
That’s why when Dain Hancock, former President of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, wanted to win the largest contract in the industry’s history; he worked on changing human behavior. And sure enough, when people acted in new ways, Lockheed Martin won the contract. When Mike Miller the Vice President of Billing Systems within the telecommunications industry wanted to drop costs, improve quality, and enhance morale—all during a horrific downturn in demand for their product—he too worked on changing human behavior and he too, hit his goals.
But take note. Both of these carefully crafted interventions required the ability to wield influence. Identifying the high-leverage behaviors that needed to change was only the first step. Training the target behaviors also was insufficient to create change. Getting people to routinely act in new ways called for several additional influence strategies.
For instance, the new behaviors had to be linked to existing values or employees would never have embraced them. People also needed to learn how to enact the behaviors with ease—calling for deliberate practice. In both interventions, key opinion leaders served on steering committees which provided much needed social support. From a systems standpoint, the performance-review system had to be aligned with the target behaviors. The interventions also called for several changes in policies, work layout, and the organizations’ overall structure. By supporting the training with individual, social, and structural influence strategies, the training resulted in changes in behavior which in turn improved key performance indicators.
Everyone Needs to Learn These Influence Strategies
Executives aren’t the only ones who need to learn how to wield more influence. What division manager or front-line supervisor hasn’t wrestled with deeply rooted problems they inherited from their predecessors? Consider Jim Post, the HR manger of a large middle-America manufacturing firm. The front-line supervisor in his organization had essentially stopped holding employees accountable and the results were disastrous. Now, what could Jim do to reestablish accountability?
Dr. David Feldman, vice chair of the department of surgery of Maimonides Medical Center, faced similar circumstances when he discovered that despite his attempts to motivate people to speak up when they saw a problem, he couldn’t get nurses to confront surgeons who made mistakes. How do you both motivate and enable people to speak up to individuals who frighten or intimidate them?
This problem spreads across nearly every industry. While working with The Concours Group, we learned that 85 percent of all corporate projects fail. Worse still, project managers are almost always aware they’re about to fail—but are unwilling to address what they think are impossible deadlines, or unsupportive leaders, or even nonperforming teammates. Imagine the challenge of trying to get people to speak their mind when they’re already so nervous about speaking up that they’d rather see a project fail than say anything.
To solve these problems with execution and accountability, skilled influencers employed more than a dozen different influence strategies to enact new behaviors. Without employing a rich set of strategies, employees may have known what behaviors were called for and they may have even been comfortable enacting them, but they might not have remembered or chosen to do so in critical times.
Teaching behaviors calls for training. Changing behaviors calls for influence.
Right Down to Your Last Employee
Finally, consider any individual contributor who is dealing with a problem that won’t go away. That is to say, an individual with no formal authority who will fail at changing behavior unless the changes are supported by several influence strategies. For example, how would a member of one department deal with the long-held tradition of badmouthing and battling with employees from other departments? Or how might employees learn to collaborate with their internal customers who aren’t correctly following procedures rather than simply demand compliance and then complain to their bosses?
When faced with interpersonal challenges of this magnitude, individual contributors often employ insufficient diagnostic methods and then, to nobody’s surprise, develop inadequate influence strategies. Then when their project fails, they blame their leaders or lose faith in their ability to succeed. Eventually, they see leaders as out-of-touch or even powerless and uncaring. They may also come to see organizations as rigid, unfriendly, and intractable. Sooner or later, morale drops, improvement efforts trickle to a standstill, and nobody benefits.
To break from this unhealthy and frustrating cycle, teach employees a robust analytical method that includes targeting a variety of influence strategies. Once they’ve created a robust plan, employees can then work with key decision makers to help turn their plan into reality. Instead of walking into their leader’s office with a gripe-list or a team of vigilantes looking for people to ambush, they step forward with a plan in hand that’s based on a thorough diagnosis and includes recommendations that draw from a rich variety of influence strategies. Then, by collaborating with individuals who have more access to resources and more formal authority, they jointly create system-wide interventions that yield the results they want.
So, who might benefit from improved influence tools? Just about everyone. Employees who share the ability to systematically think about and then create lasting changes in behavior comprise a corporation’s most precious asset. Give people the power to exert genuine influence and they now have the power to solve a company’s most persistent and resistant problems.