Behavior Change is Risky Business

All projects and change efforts involve behavioral risk. They require people to start doing some things or to do things differently. When sustained behavior change is a requirement, those responsible for the new behaviors must feel compelled to do so, know specifically what to do, and know how to do it. They must also receive more positive reinforcement for those new behaviors than for any old habits or workarounds that compete with the new behaviors. It might sound simple, but as the number of people involved in the change effort grows, the risk grows. To underestimate the precision and consistency required to motivate and sustain the desired change is to leave the success of your implementation to chance. Whether it’s a large-scale site or corporate-wide change effort, or a project with a more limited scope and stakeholder group to achieve success, you must actively plan to anticipate and avoid these behavioral risks:

  • Need for Change is Not Compelling – If those impacted by the change do not buy into a compelling rationale for that change, little enthusiasm for doing anything different will come from it. If you can’t develop a compelling reason for the change, then don’t expect anyone else to. If you have one, communicate it frequently. 
  • Behavior Change is Vaguely Defined – If the desired change is described at a high level, but the specific behavior change required for success has either not been defined for all stakeholder groups or has not been clearly communicated, then effective behavior change is unlikely to ever get going. If you need specific behaviors from different levels of the organization, create a behavioral roadmap that defines those expectations. 
  • Lack of Skill in the Desired Behavior Change – If new behaviors are required for the change to be successful, be sure to identify and fill skill gaps before or at the start of the initiative. Otherwise, you will foster frustration and damper engagement. Don’t assume that people know how to do what you’re asking of them. 
  • Behavior Gets Pulled in Different Directions – As Dr. Aubrey C. Daniels says, “Behavior goes where reinforcement flows.” If the work environment continues to prompt and reinforce old behaviors or behaviors that compete with the new desired change behaviors, change efforts will produce inconsistent results or stall altogether. Eliminate or proactively reduce competing contingencies so that positive reinforcement is focused on what you want. 
  • Behavior Dies on the Vine – If an organization defines the change it wants, but then does little to support that new behavior consistently after the change initiative is launched, the new behaviors are likely to extinguish quickly. Provide frequent and consistent positive reinforcement for the new behaviors until those behaviors become habits and naturally reinforcing.
  • Behavior Drifts – Be mindful that shortcuts that affect safety, company values, quality, or customer service could creep into the culture if drifts in behavior are left unchecked. Not all drift is bad. Variations in how results are accomplished can lead to efficiencies and new best practices, but if you don’t look to behavior to see how results are being accomplished, you won’t know whether any drift is good or bad. Keep an eye on how results are being achieved and address negative behavior drift as soon as you see it. 

Not all projects and initiatives are large enough to warrant a formal change management strategy. Regardless, if success relies on building new habits in your organization, you need to anticipate and address potential barriers to that behavior change. This will build behavioral momentum quickly and you'll avoid resorting to frustrated nagging and negative reinforcement later. 

Make each of your change efforts a positive experience for all stakeholders. Change will come faster. Everyone will be happier. And you’ll create an agile culture of early adopters. 

ADI behavior change experts are available to support your change efforts. We invite you to learn more.

Posted by Tom Spencer, Ph.D.

As President and CEO, Tom actively works with ADI staff and clients to create positive change and achieve desired business goals. For nearly 25 years, his experience and ideas have shaped pragmatic and integrated approaches to applying the science of behavior to the workplace. Tom has written extensively on topics related to leadership, consequence management, performance fluency, and technology development. When not leading ADI, Tom enjoys trail running and following the WVU Mountaineers.