Changing behavior isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight, but it is possible, and it can positively impact your organization. Modifying behavior is a crucial tool for initiating change in any organization. Your employees should do better because of your actions and influence — not without or despite your influence.

Leaders often become frustrated when dealing with personnel problems. Logical, common-sense solutions don’t always bring change. Since most people will continue to act as they always have, you need to help them change their behavior before they can make improvements.

Part of Leadership Training 

I’ve used the following 6-step behavior modification plan with many leadership development trainees. As part of the training, trainees were required to make a 6-step plan to modify one of their behaviors. It could be a personal or work-related behavior they wished to change.

Whether it was going to the gym twice per week and using the membership, they bought last year, cutting back on fast food, or to stop procrastinating at work. The point was to understand how behavior could be modified. BTW, almost everyone realized success and altered their behavior. I challenge you to try it.

For behavior to change it must be observable. It’s difficult to change a team member’s attitude, how they feel, or what they think. For example, changing an employee with a “bad attitude” may be difficult, if not impossible, by only focusing on the employee’s mindset. However, you can modify observable behaviors such as being impolite to other employees, curt on the phone, or rude to customers.

Six Steps to Changing Behavior

  1. Define the behavior based on specific observable behavior

a. A non-specific definition could be: “He has a bad attitude.”

b. A good definition could be:

  • Openly complains about other employees
  • Submits incomplete, inaccurate work
  • Makes derogatory remarks about other departments
  • Complains in meetings about operations
  1. Set the objective to increase or decrease the behavior

  • Think small; a slight increase or decrease is a positive modification. It’s a step min the right direction.
  • Make one change at a time. For example, begin with one of the four good definitions listed above (a – d). Don’t attempt to change all at once.
  1. Use consequences to modify the behavior

  • Positive reinforcement — rewards for behavioral changes
  • Negative reinforcement — reprimand for not changing behaviors
  • Extinguish or ignore — no outcome

Questions to Consider

  • Why is the behavior allowed? Many reoccurring behaviors are reinforced. What is reinforcing the behavior?
  • How is it allowed? To understand what’s supporting the behavior, observe what happens before, during, and after the behavior. Has management ignored it, allowed it, or given it an exception?
  • So, why doesn’t reprimand work? It may be split reinforcement, which is when a team member likes to “stir things up.” What might seem to be a punishment, like a reprimand from a manager, or ridicule from the team, may reinforce the behavior because they relish reaction and attention. Consider using extinction (ignoring the behavior) to stop split reinforcement.
  • What consequences will not change the behavior? If your first reaction is creating fear, you might reconsider. I believe, using fear as motivation should be the last resort if used at all. Fear may cause an opposite negative effect, and the more it is used, the less effective it is. When fear is overused, it becomes a poor management non-leadership style that can adversely affect the  organizations culture.
  • When should you reward positive behavior? Always and whenever possible as soon as it occurs. Reinforcement can be social (ex: praise), tangible (ex: extra break or time off), or monetary (ex: a bonus).
  • Consequences must be legal, feasible, and followed through.
  1. Implement the plan

a. Be consistent — Don’t praise one day and not the next or extinguish one time, then out of frustration, lash out the next day. It’s essential to praise positive behavior consistently.

b. Combine consequences — Below is an example of combined consequences for a team member that uses negativity to gain attention.

  • Give a written reprimand to extremely negative, inappropriate behavior.
  • Reinforce all positive behavior immediately.
  • Reward progress and think small, such as a tracked daily decrease in negative comments for a week earns a lunch.
  1. Track the plan

  • Can you track it? We control what we track.
  • Can you see it? For you to track it, it must be observable behavior or objective criteria.
  • How will it be tracked?
  • Who will track it?
  • How long will it be tracked?
  1. Evaluate the plan before beginning, double-check it

  • Is it a specific observable behavior?
  • Does the plan keep adjustments small, concentrating on one change at a time?
  • Do you know what is reinforcing and controlling the behavior?
  • Are the consequences feasible to implement?
  • Will this plan be consistent?

So, changing behavior begins with you. Are you ready for a change? Are up to the challenge of trying it yourself? Because if you do, we’d love to hear the outcome.

You can find this behavioral modification method and more in my book, The New Manager’s Workbook, a crash course in effective management. Many organizations, large and small, use my book as the basis for their leadership development program. Does your business have a management training plan?

If you enjoyed this post you might also like, You Can’t Make Everybody Happy—Can You?