The Only Way to Change Behaviour

By Andrew Bass | Blog, Change, Change-&-Persistence

There is only one way to change someone else’s behaviour. It’s the same whether it’s a direct report, a customer, a boss, an audience or a team.

How do you do it? You need to change your behaviour in relation to their’s.

This is both bad news and good news. The bad news is that what you are doing or saying may be the very thing keeping a problem in place. The good news is, you therefore have the power to change it.

This first became clear to me after a fascinating afternoon talking to a top dog trainer many years ago. After she had shown me round the kennels, the trainer let me into a secret: dog training is not for the dog.

It’s for the owner. Uncooperative dogs are uncooperative because of the cues they are getting from their humans.

For example, the trainer explained: “If the dog stands in front of the TV, most people shout: ‘Get out of the way, Rover!'”

“But Rover doesn’t understand this the way the owner intends it. To Rover, this shouting is not a warning to move. It’s actually welcome attention, and it shows Rover that if he wants more attention, all he has to do is to continue to stand in front of the TV.

“What the owner should do is to wait for Rover to sit somewhere away from the TV screen, and then make a fuss of rewarding him. Now when Rover wants attention he can go to that spot.

“I teach dog owners to amplify helpful behaviours and not give oxygen to unhelpful ones. That way, the helpful stuff starts to crowd out the unhelpful.

“And it works with other people, too,” she confided.

(Just as she said this, I noticed her husband putting a cup of tea on the table beside me. He looked over to his wife, who nodded approvingly, and trotted happily back into the kitchen.)

Joking apart, there’s a very important lesson here. Amplifying helpful responses, and simply withholding reinforcement from unhelpful ones, is a wise and effective way to shape unfolding circumstances. And human behaviour is no exception.

(By the way, before you think to yourself that I’m advocating something manipulative, let me ask you a question. Is the owner training Rover to sit out of line of the TV, or is Rover training his owner to give him attention on demand? Rover is very far from powerless. The wise owner realizes that their relationship is an ongoing negotiation rather than a competition for dominance).

Here are some implications for leadership:

  • When you give feedback, focus on what the other party did right. Then you’ll get more of it. I’ve written about this before – here’s the link.
  • If employees are disengaged and unenthusiastic, assume that you (through your organization) are somehow reinforcing them. After all, as Michael Breen once remarked: “Were they miserable when you hired them?”
  • If your direct reports are always asking you to resolve squabbles or make decisions which should be taken at their level, ask yourself whether you are inadvertently enabling that behaviour.

Change your behaviour and change your world.