How To Change Someone’s Behaviour

image of poster saying kill your tvYou may want to change someone’s behaviour. A subordinate; a boss (yes you can!); a spouse (let me know how you get on); a child.

Before you try to do this, you need to be sure the change is for that person’s benefit, not just yours. And that they want to change, or at least they see you as someone who has their interests at heart and they don’t see you simply as a manipulative psycho-nutter…

So, assuming that’s all OK, let’s begin…

To change someone’s behaviour you need to focus on their, er…behaviour.

Focus on what you want to change. So far so obvious?

Hmmmm, not so obvious.

Here’s how to get it wrong –

  • Focus on capabilities – “I think you need to go on a course…”
  • Focus on beliefs and values – “You’re too soft with them you know…”
  • Focus on identity – “You’re not much of a negotiator are you..?”

Focusing on these aspects doesn’t bring about change. It’s not helpful because it doesn’t suggest a means to improve. I cannot change my capabilities overnight. Beliefs and values will take even longer. Identity? Even longer still.

Here’s some stuff that’s been said to me over the years…

Firstly, two great cracks at my identity –

“You don’t have much confidence do you.” Thanks for that boss. I feel better already.  

“You’re a bit of a loner aren’t you?” This was said to me by someone who felt anxiety when alone in a room. I kid you not.   

And then on my capability –

“I think you really messed up there?” (I’m OK with this one, I don’t mind criticism at the capability level, but most people are not like me and they do not like it.)

“I don’t think you feel responsible for your sales.” Of course I feel effing responsible for the sales but the customers do not buckle to my will simply because I possess this belief…and we are selling undifferentiated commodities at premium prices…aaarrrggghhh!!

These bosses were not bad people. In fact, I’d say they were top 25%. Well meaning, educated, rounded and experienced. But they still made the mistake of trying to effect change at a level other than the behavioural.

Here’s the bare bones of a conversation on behaviours –

  • Did you get the result you wanted?
  • What could you do differently?
  • What are you going to do differently?


If you limit your positive critique to behaviour, and you do it well, the person will change their behaviour.


This in turn will improve their capability.


Which will change their beliefs (on what they can do).


And in time their new behaviour will become part of their identity.

Big result!

Of course, you can praise at any level.

4 Responses to How To Change Someone’s Behaviour

  1. Robert Sloss March 13, 2012 at 9:07 am #

    I have just been at a workshop run by BCG where the key issue was the need for personal and corporate behavioural change to improve how an industry operates. They used a simple model (not a 4 box matrix!) but used it well. We all had to produce behaviour maps of the other groups dealing with the issue. These maps went under simple headings: Role; Goals; Resources; Constraints; Resulting Behaviour. It was based on the fact that people tend to behave rationally to their situation and behaviour is the result of the situation and not the cause, so understanding the other persons situation helps you to mitigate their behaviour.

    It was a very interesting exercise, whether any group will change behaviours will be the test of the value.

    I don’t think they have copywrited the process!

    • Mark Nugent March 13, 2012 at 10:33 pm #

      Thanks Robert – I know you’re being modest by not elaborating on “BCG” – this is, of course, the Boston Consulting Group, inventors of cash cows, stars, problem children and other strange species of the business firmament.

      I am slightly alarmed to see BCG take such a deterministic view of life, i.e. it’s all environment and we cannot effect change….I guess all the CEOs of the world now will have to start paying them minimum wage if they’re that ineffectual…

      This worries me, unless of course you view a bloody good manager/leader as part of the environment and then he/she can effect environmental change….

      I fear I may be disappearing up my own backside…not for the first time.

  2. Harry Ziman March 14, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    Great Pearl, very timely and very appropriate. To the person exhibiting behaviour, it is rational and makes sense taking into account their subjective experiences, perceptions and personal satisfiers. The questions proposed recognise this whereas the “you messed up …” style do not as what they are saying is that the “boss did not get the results that they wanted” which is a completely different statement.

    The first of the Pearl’s proposed questions, “did you get the results you wanted” is predicated on an alignment between the wanted results and those that are sought from the person.Is this always the case? e.g. I want a work-life balance but company wants to squeeze an extra sales call in ….

    • Mark Nugent March 15, 2012 at 7:24 am #

      Good point Harry. If the boss’ and the employee’s desired result is different it may well end in tears. But the boss needs to realise that the difference may be due to the employee not yet setting his/her sights high enough due to lack of competence/confidence…bosses need to be psychologists, whether they want to or not.

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