Babies and Behavior: (knowing where they come from can be helpful!)

By Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D. Originally published by ACT Dental.

Do you know where babies come from? There are some people who don't seem to know the answer to that question. They just keep having babies. However, let's assume that you are not one of those people and skip that discussion.

Now let me ask a tougher question: Do you know where behavior comes from? Leaders, whose job it is to manage other people's behavior (i.e., performance), need to know the answer to that question to excel at their job. Otherwise, it's tough to manage one's own behavior, much less that of other people. If you want to effectively manage your staff's behavior, you need to know where it comes from.

Behavior comes from thoughts and emotions. How we think about a situation and how the situation makes us feel drive how we respond to it.

The failure rate for programs designed to change behavior in the workplace is high too. Programs in leadership, conflict management, culture change and the like are often met with skepticism and called "the flavor of the month". In reality, some behavioral programs are terrific, while others deserve skepticism because the results they achieve decay over a matter of weeks. What do effective behavioral or performance training programs have that failing programs do not? They know where behavior comes from.

Consider this example from outside dentistry: A large retail organization had a unit with notoriously poor customer service. (Remember that you are in a customer service business.) The company brought in a well-respected customer service training program to teach employees customer service behavior. As a result of this rather expensive program, customer service improved - for about six weeks. Then employees drifted back to their old ways.

What went wrong? This customer service program did not address the thoughts and feelings of the employees that influenced their behaviors towards customers. Over the prior few years, a number of things had happened that shaped the thoughts and feelings of employees. Various conflicts had arisen, normal for any organization. Unfortunately, company leaders were not skilled at conflict management, so the conflicts were left to fester. Conflicts occurred between line employees and management as well as among employees. Angry thoughts and emotional irritation became normal. Such thoughts and feelings led employees to treat customers the same way the insiders treated each other. Why? It is axiomatic that customer service workers treat customers as they experience themselves to be treated by their leaders.

I conducted a different intervention that led to long lasting improvements in customer service. We began by dealing with how conflict got handled. Misunderstandings, some years old, were cleared up. New ways of communicating were established. Conflicts began to be resolved in ways that satisfied all parties. As a result, employees began to think about each other differently. This change in thinking spilled over into how people thought about customers. Just as co-workers now thought of each other as allies, customers were seen as allies as well. With regard to emotions, feelings of chronic irritation among employees were replaced with feelings of interest and acceptance. Again, this spilled over onto feelings about customers.

Once employees' thoughts and feelings changed, it was a pretty simple process to change customer service behavior. The customer service training I offered was less sophisticated than the earlier program. Yet it achieved results that persisted. In fact, the company enjoyed a 2000% (really) return on investment (and counting).

The message is that if you want to change behavior within your staff, begin by understanding the thoughts and feelings that drive that behavior. If someone is chronically late for work, don't just lay down the law and expect improvement. Find out what their thoughts are about punctuality and about the job itself. Find out what other pressures there are on this person's time. Perhaps they believe strongly in punctuality but are responding to family demands that are even more upsetting than your displeasure. With such information, you are much more likely to be able to craft a response that works for the long term.

How do you get this information? The short answer is - go talk to people. Listen carefully to their thoughts and feelings about the issues in question. There are some techniques that can help you ask and hear more skillfully.

For example, avoid asking people "why" questions. The word why makes people defensive. (Don't ask me why.) When people are asked why questions ("Why were you late - again!?") they get uptight and offer rationalizations. Rationalizations provide bogus data that is no use in actual problem solving. When you are tempted to ask a why question (and you will be), take a moment to reword it before speaking. You might say "I see that you were late again today. Please help me understand what's making that happen."

Second, use reflective listening when you really want to learn more. Restate what people tell you in different words. "What I hear you saying is . . ." Such listening makes the person feel heard, a powerful experience. Once people feel heard, they are more open to changing their position than beforehand. However, be sure that you have done enough reflective listening to have gotten all the relevant data about how the individual is thinking and feeling before you begin searching for ways to effect change.

Understanding thoughts and feelings will provide the road map to effective behavior change, both for you and others.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D. is a psychologist who provides coaching and consultation to dentists and their staffs. He has been a guest lecturer at the Pankey Institute for Advanced Dental Education and writes frequently for Dentistry Today. He can be reached at , or 540-774-1927, or EQ Leader, Inc., 2840 Electric Rd, Suite 208, Roanoke, Virginia 24018.

The comprehensive science based EQ Leader Program builds lasting change in EQ skills that make a dramatic difference in performance.

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