Fix Those People: Reframing the “Behavior Modification” Problem

by | Nov 16, 2021

Behavior modification (or behavior change) is a classic human predicament that is reflected in the question: How do I get those people to change their behavior?

You might be a parent dealing with a toddler. Or a government official looking for compliance with a new policy. Or a business consultant trying to implement change in an organization. Whatever the relationship and mission, you will have wondered how exactly to get other people to act in the way you want. Let’s call these behavior modification schemes. Sometimes they are manipulative. But most often they are grounded in a good desire for the behavior you feel is in the group’s best interest.

In the workplace, this problem often takes forms such as:

  • How do you get them to adopt the new mission, the new business, or institutional reality?
  • How do you give them the skills they need for the new world?

Most likely, such questions are being asked by top management with regards to local groups and how they operate on the ground. But given that such behavior modification is notoriously difficult, how can the issue be reframed to create a better possibility?

If You Acted on This Definition

If the goal is taken as behavior modification, then it makes sense to start the modification by communicating and offering training in a big way. You would spend time defining the desirable behaviors, then design or purchase programs to meet those competencies. You would then train managers to conduct the programs and get the top leaders to endorse them. The end result, you should hope, would be the new behaviors being acted out across the organization. Problem solved. Right? Well…maybe not.

Reframing “Behavior Modification”

The thing is that “those people” are very unlikely to be the real problem. To add injury to the insult, wide-scale training will cost a lot and redirect resources away from the real problem. Plus, focusing on people’s deficiencies only reinforces them.

Change is more likely to happen when we capitalize on, and bring to bear people’s capacities, and gifts, and strengths.

Despite the claims of consultants and their intimate organizational champions, large-scale training has had a poor record of changing organizations. There is an uncomfortable truth here. As the economic beneficiaries of the training movement, consultants are reluctant to be accountable for the fact that most large change efforts have led to little change.

Consultants often hold on to the belief that if they had more top management support things would have been different. But there is a false assumption beneath this belief.

The reality is that effective behavior modification throughout an organization is rarely dictated by a central mandate. It is much more likely to arise in response to circumstances on the ground.

Resist the “Fix” Mentality

This is why you must resist the “fix” mentality, where centralized control becomes the catch-all solution. Rather, local groups deciding what change and learning they need–with an emphasis on their underutilized capacities–is a faster and cheaper path to learning.

Here is the change in mentality you’ll need:

As a consultant, you are not in the behavior modification business, but in the community-organizing business: Bringing local groups together, engaging them in questions of purpose, allowing for local variation wherever possible. These practices create relational equity. And you can make the bet that this engagement effort will lead to a level of accountability that will make up for any “fixing” benefits that might accrue from the traditional strategy.

In summary, to act in this new frame:

  1. Focus NOT on people’s deficiencies, but on their gifts and strengths.
  2. Challenge the assumption that top management is what ultimately drives organizational behavior.
  3. Resist the urge to “fix” things centrally. Instead, let local groups decide what they need to learn to face their reality.

[Adapted from Peter Block, ‘Twelve Questions to the Most Frequently Asked Answers,’ The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion: A Guide to Understanding Your Expertise, 2001, pp. 399-400]

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