Four common mistakes in identifying behaviours

The ultimate goal of any change initiative is to get people to do something different. To change what they are actually doing. To change their behaviours. Therefore the first step to any successful change is to decide what the behaviour is you want people to now do.

Why is focussing on behaviours so important? Research by the authors of Influencer shows that those who have been consistently successful in delivering change, in very difficult and complex environments, have one distinguishing feature – they  focus on behaviours.

They’re inflexible on this point. They don’t do anything  until they’ve carefully identified the specific behaviours they want to change. They start by asking; “In order to improve our existing situation, what must people actually do?

So, a behaviour is something you can walk into a room and see someone doing. They’re observable actions. If you can’t walk into a room and see someone doing it – it’s not a behaviour. If you can’t go and do it – it’s not a behaviour.  If you can’t teach it to someone, and observe them doing it – it’s not a behaviour.

From my experience there are four common mistakes people make when trying to identify the behaviours they want to change.

(1) Confuse results with behaviours

One of the first big mistakes people make is to confuse results with behaviours. They look at the outcome or the result and say; “Ah, that’s what we want people to do“. We want them to be more customer focussed, or collaborative or engaged. However, these are results, not behaviours.

Let me give you another example – weight loss. People focus on the result they want (i.e. lose 5 centimetres off my waist, or but a smaller jean size, or lose 5kg) but what they then don’t do is follow this through to identify the actual behaviours that will achieve this result (i.e. always eat breakfast, exercise for 30 minutes a day, weigh myself every day etc.).

Having a focus on the results you want is great, but unless you then identify the behaviours, the thing you will actually do, then you will struggle to achieve these results.

(2) Confuse behaviours with values

I’ve done a lot of work on culture change in organisations. Often these programs will include rolling out a new set of values. I believe it’s 100% right for organisations to have, and to live by, values like integrity, respect for people or the ‘will to win’.

However, what often happens is that people think these new values are the behaviours you want people to now do, but they’re not. I can’t walk into a room and watch someone show a ‘will to win’. Unless you define the behaviours that sit under these values, then you are making it much more difficult to create real change, because people don’t know what they should actually do.

(3) Confuse ways of thinking with behaviours

In a previous blog post I gave an example about how an article entitled The 8 Behaviors of Resilient People didn’t contain one behaviour. They were actually all ways of thinking, not behaviours.

Let’s look at one of them – ‘Manage your strong feelings and impulses’. In the article Dr Nicole Lipkin talks about how resilient people still experience anger; it just doesn’t consume them. “We all have this ability, if we so choose…Acknowledge the feelings and try to move on.

That may be great advice, but what I want to know is what can I do to be able to achieve this? What is the behaviour that will allow me to achieve this result? I can’t teach someone how to manage their strong feelings and impulses until I know what they need to do.

(4) Confuse an area of focus with a behaviour

I’m diabetic and recently was doing some research around behaviours that would help me manage my condition better. I was quite excited to find a website which outlined three ‘behaviours’ to successfully manage diabetes. Then I opened the link and the three were:

  1. Improve diet
  2. Exercise
  3. Monitor

Do you think these three things gave me anything to focus on to actually change what I do? They are probably the right three ‘themes’ (e.g. diet, exercise and monitoring blood sugar levels) but they are not specific enough and do not focus on actions I can do to manage my diabetes better. Pretty much worthless.

If you want to successfully create change, start by identifying the specific behaviours you want. Always remember – if you can’t walk into a room and see someone doing it, it’s not a behaviour.

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