“You know, you’re just like my grandmother”. As statements go, it wasn’t inherently controversial. But the fact that I was saying it to a 12 year-old boy certainly got everyone’s attention. Especially the boy’s.
It was a technique I’d learnt as a psychotherapist. Say something to wrong-foot the client, to grab their attention and make them grasp for meaning, and then say what you really wanted them to hear.
“One day she’s lucid; the next day she looks right through you and has no idea who you are. And with you, there are days you say things with real meaning, and then others when it’s like you’re not really here, and you’re hiding from all the important conversations. And just like my grandmother, I miss it when you’re not here, and I wonder if you do, too.” Years later I met the boy again and he still remembered that moment and the need to be present where you are. It was just a small technique, but one I’ve used many times before and since.
Why is it so hard to change someone's behaviour?
I worked as a forensic psychotherapist for nearly ten years, with sex offenders, drug addicts, and persistent young offenders. For ten years I studied different types of psychotherapy and tried all sorts of different approaches and techniques. I felt I needed every tool possible at my disposal, because the challenge of changing people’s behaviour was so tough.
Nigh on fifteen years ago, I swapped locations. I stayed in the business of behaviour change, but moved into the corporate world, working first as a consultant and then in internal roles within large global businesses. And I discovered two things. First, that the mental processes I observed as a psychotherapist working with serious offenders were not much different from those I observed in highly accomplished executives. People can be wildly different, but the way the mind works is pretty much the same. Tinker, tailor, soldier or spy, the processes through which behaviours and thinking patterns are established and can then be changed are more or less identical.
Second, I found to my surprise that behaviour change was a phrase I hardly ever heard. Much of what corporate learning and development tries to achieve boils down to changing behaviour to improve performance. Yet though HR and managers alike talked of coaching employees and giving feedback, skills training and technical learning, ‘behaviour change’ was missing.
The missing link
So absent is behaviour from the equation that if you ask the average designer of corporate learning solutions to outline their theory of behaviour change, you are likely to get a response that goes no further than mentioning differences in learning styles or types of training. And fields that have a great deal to say about how to change peoples' behaviour, such as behaviour economics and psychotherapy, are rarely referred to and drawn upon. Of course, there is a barely a technique in coaching that did not originate in psychotherapy, but this feels hushed up and covered over in an attempt to banish images of the therapy couch and make coaching feel more business-relevant.
This may sound like semantics, but the words we use matter. The language of ‘learning and development’ engenders a line of thinking and the consideration of issues that are quite different from the ones that are raised if we talk of behaviour change. The challenge of changing behaviour is not the same as the challenge of imparting information or teaching skills, and not talking about it prevents us from recognising these different challenges and acting to meet them. As a result, the tools that leaders, managers, and HR professionals have at their disposal are limited, deprived of techniques that other fields have long used. In fact, a global survey we are conducting into behaviour change for an upcoming book shows 74% of leaders are unsure what techniques to use to change people’s behaviour, and 91% are unsure how to make change stick.
Sitting in that room with that boy all those years ago, I felt I needed all the techniques I could muster. Today, working in some of the world’s biggest organisations, I feel no different. Changing behaviour is tough, and if businesses, leaders and HR are to succeed at it, they need to move beyond the language of learning and development and start talking about what they are doing as behaviour change, so they can address its challenges and draw upon a fuller range of methods and techniques to deliver it.