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Changing employee behaviour: The key to successful change


One of the most challenging aspects of any change programme is the way in which the people aspects are addressed. Clare Roberts and Dr Jamie Ward outline some key considerations and steps for creating lasting behavioural change.

Understand what drives behaviours

When seeking to create behavioural change we need to recognise the influence of the ‘organisational mindset’. When working in an organisation, people often subtly accept and absorb the pervading values, beliefs and parameters of others who they are working with and this is reflected in how they carry out their job.

The values and beliefs that pervade an organisation, and make up the organisational mindset, build up over time through the actions, messages and decisions of people, and most influentially, of the leaders, who (whether intentionally or not) set the tone of the organisation’s culture.

People’s thoughts and feelings, guided by beliefs around what the organisation values, will often drive the behaviour that impacts negatively on performance. Ignoring the fact that changing how people work is about changing the underpinning mindset or values as well as behaviours is to invite failure.

“Creating behavioural change across an organisation is not easy, but it is possible with the right tools and techniques.”

How do you achieve behavioural change?

Creating behavioural change across an organisation is not easy, but it is possible with the right tools and techniques. In applying any of the steps described below, it is important to remember that in our experience, revolutionary change (where lots of change initiatives happen at the same time) is less successful than incremental change (where changes are built upon the ones that went before).

1. Identify what you need to change and make the argument compelling
First you need to identify what currently happens in the organisation – and specifically, the ways of working that you want to change. To bring this about, people need to have a clear picture of the desired outcome, the vision: it needs to be courageous and seductive; one that not only sets out the new ways of working, but one that inspires people, which sets out the new values and beliefs, and defines the new organisational mindset. Individuals need to hear what’s in it for them, in terms they can relate to. And where behaviour change is not optional, they also need to know the consequences of not doing it.

2. Recognise the issues of individual resistance
When attempting to change organisation-wide behaviours there will be issues of individual resistance which must be considered. For example, while habits can be useful to enable people to deal with routine tasks efficiently, the degree of security they provide can often mean that changes to them will be opposed. Being aware of the source of individual resistance can help to structure and communication interventions appropriately.

3. Engage change leaders at every level
Change leaders play a critical role in communicating the change and blazing the trail for modelling new ways of working. Leaders at all levels within the organisation need to cascade and enrol their staff into the overall vision, and then actively demonstrate the specific new behaviours needed to make it real.

However during a process of change, the leaders themselves are often unsure. They say the right things, but, somehow, they are not that believable. In their hearts and minds there is resistance to the desired new mindset, a sense that the old order is better, and that the new path requires much effort for little personal or financial reward. Therefore early work with the leadership team, helping them to articulate and address their personal concerns and worries, pays dividends. Once the leaders are really up for it, your chances of success are infinitely greater.

4. Change the way that people talk about the organisation
To succeed in culture change, particularly in large organisations, it doesn’t work to rely solely on the senior leadership team to drive the change. You need to mobilise ‘kindred spirits’, to engage people at all levels in the organisation who buy into the new values, who understand, and who will be strong role models.

“Change leaders play a critical role in communicating the change and blazing the trail for modelling new ways of working.”

Creating this critical mass of people, reaching the tipping point, delivers the groundswell you need to move the organisational mindset. Approaches that have worked well include storytelling techniques, helping managers to craft the messages that they give to their staff and developing a new language to describe the new ways of working.

5. Unfreeze the culture with a significant action
An organisation’s culture, when the organisation is in a steady state, is ‘frozen’ to some extent. If you want to change the culture, or an aspect of it, you need to go through a process of unfreezing the culture, and then refreezing it along the lines of the future desired vision.

If you are serious about getting people to behave differently, you have to signal this intent conspicuously to all individuals in the organisation, challenging both behaviours, but also potentially deeply held values. Bold, meaningful actions from leaders to demonstrate the new ways of working will speak volumes. Sometimes this also means using the power of signs and symbols – changing or removing specific features that have become associated with outdated beliefs.

6. Redirect the energy of the organisation
The emotional context, or energy state, of the organisation is particularly important in a change situation, and crucially can be harnessed to good effect. Emotions such as excitement, inspiration, motivation and enthusiasm are what give a change programme the positive energy to succeed.

On the flip side, negative emotions such as aggression, tiredness and comfort can drain energy from the organisation and work against the change required. Often, organisations fail to address behavioural change effectively because they adopt largely left-brained solutions, often couched in terms of ‘science’ or ‘logic’. Purposefully harnessing the power of emotions in the organisation can become a powerful process for change.

Delivering success

Success in behavioural change is ultimately about engaging both hearts and minds. If you do this, your organisation’s ability to meet the challenges of the change will be assured. More than that, you will release unexpected energy and creativity, and the journey itself will become exciting.

Clare Roberts and Dr Jamie Ward are both managing Consultants at PA Consulting Group

3 Responses

  1. Vom Kriege
    This does seem very old fashioned approach but clearly popular for having said that.

    We shouldn’t forget, in our proper respect for “the workers” that managers are workers too. Subject to the same influences and cultural effects.

    It used to be said that nobody got the sack for buying IBM solutions. No doubt big consultancy brands like PA have the same value to purchasers. All part of the culture.

    Popular culture plays the bigger part.

    All the training schemes, the examples like the NHS, The Apprentice on TV – what does all this say to people, to managers?

    Who is saying that being honest and trustworthy is the way to get people committed to you and your cause?

    In its simplest form if people don’t believe you will look after their interests thay are quite right to resist change!

    Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas!

  2. Agree with Peter
    Outside of agreeing totally with Peter and mostly disagreeing with the authors, I’d like to comment on a particular statement.

    “The values and beliefs that pervade an organisation, and make up the organisational mindset, build up over time through the actions, messages and decisions of people, and most influentially, of the leaders, who (whether or not) set the tone of the organisation’s culture.”

    There is some truth to that statement, but culture does not come out of nowhere.

    The vast majority of the workforce are conformists more or less. A conformist newly joining the workforce within a week learns what to conform to by extracting from everything experienced in the workplace a set of value standards. These experiences very quickly teach the new member how to do work, that is how honestly or dishonestly or somewhere in between, how industrious or lazily and the same for all the other common values such as courtesy, respect, knowledge, fairness, forthrightness, perseverance, attitude, etc.

    The value standard messages come from the quality of management’s support. The workforce is responsible to do the work, management is responsible to support their work with training, tools, direction, discipline, technical documentation and advice, policies, rules, procedures, parts, material, etc.

    Quality of support? Tools can be readily available or hard to find or somewhere in between, clean or dirty or somewhere in between, state of the art or obsolescent or somewhere in between, discipline can be fair and timely or rare and permissive of performance infractions or somewhere in between, and so on for every element of support. The quality of these elements of support send the value standard messages the workforce use to do their work. If the bosses want workforce performance to improve, they only need to improve the quality of their support.

    Management is in direct control of performance, whether they want to admit it or not.

    The area of support with the most potential for damage is that of direction. The top-down command and control model used by most execs, managers and supervisors sends the clear message of “shut up and listen”. The message received by employees is that they are disrespected and not considered valued employees. Using these standards as their guide causes employees to treat their work, their customers, each other and their bosses with disrespect. If the bosses don’t care about them, why should they care about the work?

    The top-down command and control system naturally leads to very poor performance by employees. While bosses blame employees for their poor performance, the truth is that it is being caused and continually reinforced by the boss’ negative leadership.

    Hope this helps. Best regards, Ben

    Author “Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed”

  3. Change is only difficult when you try to drive it.
    Change is only difficult when it is not the change that is needed or wanted.

    This is normally the case because the change is decided by management, who know best, and is implemented by applying pressure to the workforce who were not consulted about the change or allowed any input into its implementation because they are not management and can therefore have no useful input.

    Management know best.

    Trying to implement change in these circumstances has been likened to herding cats and much effort has been spent in the development of new cat herding tools.
    When these tools fail to herd the cats it is assumed that the tools have been used incorrectly or that the wrong tools were being used.

    Kurt Lewin proposed the freeze unfreeze model of change before the last war when management by big stick was the only model available, before we realised the destructive effects of this type of management on the workforce of the day.
    Today’s workforce are more like cats, independent, intelligent, skilled and even less likely to respond to the efforts of management to herd them.

    Instead of seeking new tools to do the same thing, driving change, when history has shown the futility of this strategy, should we not be looking for an alternative way to allow change to happen?

    If the workforce are consulted about change they will show us exactly what the change is that will not only be effective they will also show us how to make it happen, and because it is their change, it belongs to them, they will take pride in its implementation and the associated performance improvement.

    The workforce want to be involved and proud of what they do but are prevented when they are driven in this way by management.

    If you want to herd cats, find out where they want to go then help them to get there.

    Assuming that you know where they want to go then driving them in that direction has never worked in the past.
    Why should it work now?

    Peter A Hunter

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