Talk Does Not Cook Rice

On hearing of the North Korea test of a nuclear bomb, Obama said, "The U.S. will take action." I hope he will. However, I am afraid that he meant that he will get other people (U. N. and China) to tell North Korea to stop their nuclear program.

The title of this post is a Chinese proverb which contains a scientific discovery about behavior: antecedents don’t cause behavior, i.e., telling someone about consequences doesn’t change behavior unless the telling has been paired consistently with consequences in the past. One thing that we can count on about our government, past and present is that there is a lot more talking than there is action. This means, of course, that the application of consequences is inconsistent and the impact on behavior is questionable.

President Obama has said on several occasions, "Let me be perfectly clear." While that is important, clear communications is not at the heart of behavior change. As a matter of fact, the more you communicate without consistent pairing with consequences, the less people attend to what you say. Every child has heard the story of "the boy who cried wolf" but a great many never learned the lesson therein.

I recently watched a TV presentation by Dr. John Rosemond on child rearing. He is a popular writer and speaker about parenting issues. He said among other things that effective parenting is "about clear communication" and he repeated it over and over. Apologies to Dr. Rosemond, but it is really about consequences – delivering the right consequences at the right time.

My daughter was changing the diaper of my grandson as his three year old cousin stood by. As his mother needed to get something she told Liam, "Don’t you move till I get back," and left the room. Of course Liam moved. As his cousin, Elijah, saw Liam’s disregard of his mother's strong instruction, Elijah said, "Liam, there will be consequences."

When President Obama said that the U.S. will take action, I hope he meant that there will be consequences. I hope he means that the North Korean regime will experience a change of consequences, because it is only through a change of consequences that their behavior will change. Of course the consequences must be ones that effect Kim Jong-Il or those close to him. Changing the consequences on the people of North Korea will likely have little or no effect on the country’s leaders. The only thing that the citizens of North Korea could do that would create any negative consequences for the country’s leadership is a massive revolt which is unlikely given the repressive regime that exists there. The consequences must impact the leaders personally for their behavior to change.

But wait, this is not a blog about international politics but one about how to effectively change the behavior or the culture of an organization. As a country we are preoccupied with trying to change behavior with words. We warn, threaten, urge, prod, yell and scream. We tell and tell and tell. At a recent lecture I attended by colleague, Robert Cialdini, he reported that he found in his research that "urging" had the same effect on behavior as "nothing." It is true; talk does not cook rice or change behavior. To be sure, clear communication is important but it is only the beginning of behavior change. In the end it is all about consequences.


Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.