Seek why rather than what to understand people

June 28, 2010
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We often try to understand people by observing what they do and then trying to determine what causes them to act that way. People invariably act in ways that provide comfort, security, an escape, protection, or some other perceived benefit.

If we truly want to share a mutually beneficial relationship with people, we should focus on why they continue to act in a certain manner — determining what the personal benefit is for them to act that way — rather than trying to determine what happened to make them act that way in the first place. Shifting one’s paradigm a bit from the cause of behavior to the reason it is maintained helps us understand why people do the things they do — and how to better influence behavior when it needs to be changed.

I recently helped coach an individual who had been disciplined for (he thought) improper completion of paperwork. He was adamant about the fact that he had done nothing wrong. He said that he did his work the way he’d always done it, and that the issue was resolved just prior to his being called into the office to receive a “last chance” agreement, putting his job at jeopardy unless he corrected the problem.

While he continued to focus on what he did (or did not do) wrong, I began to steer him away from his act toward his reaction. The paperwork issue was a definitive act that he hid behind as a safe haven for this negative reaction to the fact that the security of his world had been disrupted by a need to change. Rather than dealing with the fact that he was comfortable doing things the way they’d always been done — that he found much comfort and security in avoiding change — this gentleman blinded himself to the fact that he had created an impervious defensive shell that was interfering with his ability to perform and with his supervisor’s ability to manage. Continuing to focus on what “was done” would not have made a difference; we needed to change the focus on his resultant actions (rather than his acts) to initiate a change in behavior.

Since so many of our interactions with people are driven by emotions rather than documentable results, one should recognize several factors that must be addressed prior to helping someone change their behavior.

You cannot change people; they must change themselves. No matter how hard you try or how influential you may be, you cannot alter the way another person thinks, acts or behaves just because you think your way is better. Until someone recognizes that there is a reason to change — that their present reality is not necessarily the way they want the future to be — they will not alter their behavior. It’s better to seek ways to maximize the positive that someone can offer than to try to alter the negative until they can be convinced there is a reason to change.

The reward for change must be greater than that provided by staying the same. People do the things they do because they like (or accept) the results of their actions. If you want someone to change their behavior, you must provide a greater benefit for changing than they would receive without changing.

Many people break the speed limit because they feel their risk of “being caught” is relatively small compared to the time they gain by going fast. Once ticketed, most slow down (at least temporarily) because the pain of compliance is greater than the gain their behavior created.

Comfort is the biggest inhibitor of change. Introduce an undesirable disruption into a comfortable lifestyle if immediate transformation is wanted. Why do New Year’s resolutions rarely come to fruition? Typically people seek to exorcise the “biggest elephant in the room” when setting New Year’s resolutions. They identify the one thing that has eluded them all year — if not their whole life — and decide to eliminate it from their innate behavior patterns overnight. After a day or two of intentional change, most individuals fall back into their daily routine, often abandoning the desire to change because it is not critical to their lifestyle.

I was hesitant to change jobs once, not because I received continual challenge and opportunity from my work but rather because I was comfortable with it, liked my peers and had gained respect and credibility from my work force. I was not actively seeking to change employers until I realized the organization I worked for might cease to exist in a year or two. A disruption of my comfortable lifestyle initiated a life-changing transition — but not until I recognized that the risk of leaving was less disruptive (and much more controlled) than staying.

All people can change should they choose to — and all will change if they are properly motivated. As you work with people (or even try to better understand yourself), focus more on what value current acts or actions provide and how that value can be increased should a different path be followed rather than on trying to change your actions or acts.

As Marcus Buckingham so aptly put it in his book “First Break All the Rules”: “People don’t change that much. Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out. Try to draw out what was left in. That is hard enough.”

David J. Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association, a not-for-profit provider of human resource solutions since 1939.

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