Why it’s so hard to change behaviours in the workplace

By Ewen Haldane

Trying out any new behaviour can be risky. Just imagine how you might try acting more assertively with a fickle friend or switch to suddenly being more ‘collaborative’ with your partner during an argument.


Just thinking about it can feel a bit - weird and uncomfortable.


But at work, the psychological costs of changing our behaviours are far higher.


So most people don’t bother.


And that’s understandable. 


When designing a learning programme, it’s important to be highly sympathetic to this. 


After all, as Dr Pepper advises, just think of all the things that could go wrong:

  • We might try out a new feedback technique and stumble into the conversation clumsily
  • We might try presenting in a new style and lose our nerve halfway through
  • We might ask our team to work more creatively and spark sniggers 

Trying out a new approach has near limitless potential to be embarrassing. And the more senior you are, the worse it gets. Because you’re meant to know what you’re doing by this point.


It might be ok for teenagers to reinvent themselves, but at 40, or 50? It’s just a bit sad, right?


Why change is risky at work

 That’s why most people stick to doing things the way they’ve always done them. 


It’s less likely to make you feel like an idiot. 


At work, avoiding feeling like an idiot is a full-time job for most of us.


But the thing is, that many of us have never actually learned these important soft skills, like how to coach someone, how to defuse a conflict skilfully or how to motivate others.


Perhaps we should have been taught them at school, or by our parents. But for most of us, that didn’t happen.


How to change when you are a leader  

And then we’re thrust into leadership positions and expected to somehow just intuit all this stuff.


Of course, we could always just Google it, or go on a short course that provides us with a nice model from McKinsey.


But knowing the theory isn’t enough.


Not by a long way. Because if we don’t actually try out the new behaviour, and keep practising it until it becomes our new default, that knowledge is meaningless.


But to put yourself in that particularly vulnerable position at work, you need a lot of emotional support.


Where does that come from?

  • That could come from a personal coach if you’re lucky enough to have one.
  • It could come from a cohort of other learners in a similar boat
  • It could come from a considerate line manager 
  • Or it could come from having a curious and playful learning culture that encourages experimentation 

Ideally, it would involve all of the above.


The role of emotional support in change and transformation

A few people are thick-skinned enough that they can experiment with this kind of stuff without needing this type of peer support.


99% of us aren’t.


So when we’re trying to get people to experiment with new behaviours at work and effectively bring about cultural change, building a supportive learning community is critical to success.


Otherwise, all the theory in the world won’t make much of a difference.


Because it’s just too embarrassing at an individual level.


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