Babies and Behavior

Do you know where babies come from? There are some people who don’t seem to know the answer to that question. 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, managers, and supervisors, 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 jobs. Without such knowledge it is tough to manage one’s own behavior, much less that of other people. If you want your leaders, at all levels, to effectively manage others’ behavior, you need to help them 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.

Have you or anyone you know ever tried to quit smoking or to diet? If so, you know that the failure rate is high. The failure rate for programs designed to change behavior in business 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 in business 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: A large retail organization had a unit with notoriously poor customer service. 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 evolved 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. It is axiomatic that customer service workers treat customers as they experience themselves being treated by their leaders.

A different intervention led to long lasting improvements in customer service. It 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 at all levels 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 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 company, 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 the boss’ displeasure. With such information, you are much more likely to be able to craft an intervention that works 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. Find ways to have your company leaders use this map. Insist that training programs attend to these true drivers of behavior.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of EQ Leader, Inc. He can be reached at 774-1927, or by e-mail at

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

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