Leaders often find that it’s harder than they expected to get people to change their behavior—not only to ask them to change, but also to explain how to make the actual change. Many execs are not trained in how to put difficult things on the table or communicate or behave in a way that is simultaneously kind, on point, and persuasive. Nor are most of us educated about assessing exactly what needs to be changed and how the mechanics of the change should work. So we often confuse the people whose behavior we want to change and make them feel defensive and resentful.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Overreact
But it’s not necessary to jump on an employee’s every error or gaffe with both feet. Most mistakes really do get corrected—sometimes all it takes is a quick adjustment or the explanation of a new rule. But because correction can feel so risky, many leaders don’t want to come across as too picky, critical, or mean; they often tolerate mistakes or problems from others and don’t take action until the errors become intolerable rather than trying to rectify them when they’re still small.
Once leaders enter what I call the red zone of intolerability, though, it’s almost as if they give themselves permission to exert excessive force. When they feel that they’ve been patient and forbearing for too long, they may blow up or otherwise overreact—even to the point of changing someone’s job. These leaders forget that “too long” happened because they didn’t choose or know how to intervene sooner.
Overreacting leaders create three kinds of damage: to the employee, who is often shocked, since their perception is that no one ever criticized them before; to the organization, which must absorb the negative cultural impact of ignoring a problem; and to leaders themselves, because their image and reputation can take a hit for not taking care of business for too long and for taking disproportionate action.
Try These Six Tactics to Changing Behavior
As soon as you notice a pattern of inaccurate or unhelpful behavior, try these approaches, which are most relevant at the onset of trouble, not when you’ve been avoiding the problem—or trying to correct it unsuccessfully—for a long time.
Get curious. Open your mind to look for the thought process, beliefs, or structure that could be driving the employee’s behavior. People rarely repeat errors or poor interactions out of pure orneriness, so focusing on the cause or reason rather than the person can help reduce the animus for all parties.
Use language that keeps the other person safe. Instead of sounding accusatory (“Why would you do that?!”) or blameful (“How could you do that?!”), point out the observed behavior in neutral terms: “I noticed that you’ve been doing X whenever Y happens.”
Make it easier for them to take responsibility. If you think they don’t really get it, you could say something like “You may not be aware that [describe the impact of the behavior]. So it would be better for you to [do the preferred thing] instead.” If you think they’ve purposefully chosen their behavior, you could say, “Tell me about the reasons you [do the problem behavior] when the result is [the problem result] so we can see if we can find a better approach that works for everyone.”
Show appreciation for their willingness to engage. “Thanks for telling me about that. I can see why [you might do that/choose this response]. Here’s how I’d like you to proceed in the future.”
Gain commitment. Ask the employee, “How will we know if this is working both for you and [other stakeholders]? Here’s what I’d like you to do if you feel it’s not working.…”
Keep your body relaxed during the discussion. Your physical gestures and demeanor will convey aspects of your reaction as much or more than your language will. So aim for longer, slower exhales; drop your shoulders; and generally release the tension in your entire body. If your body is calm and expansive, you’ll be more likely to feel and look that way, and less likely to seem like you’re about to pounce or rage.
Onward and upward —