As my colleague Dov Seidman says, in our hyperconnected and interdependent world, behavior – all the ways we communicate, govern, operate, relate and make decisions – can be competitive advantage or a source of downfall. A quick glance through the headlines of the day proves the point. Whether we’re talking about the leaders of our corporations, governments, or institutions of one kind or another, behavior – often the bad kind – is on public display 24/7. But you don’t need to be written about in the headlines to feel this reality.
THE LEADER WHO JUST WON'T CHANGE
Nicki was a Senior Vice President for a big insurance company. In her mid-40s, she’d been successful at climbing the corporate ladder, in part because she was great at getting creative ideas to scale through the complexities of her organization. This was her first role leading a large team and a profit center, but it wasn’t going well. Her team’s engagement scores were a disaster, several of her employees had left, and the rest were burnt out and frustrated. The feedback to Nicki was clear: she needed to show some compassion. Her team members were practically begging her to see, hear and respect the challenges they were going through. They were working incredibly hard to meet aggressive demands and they craved gratitude, patience and care. It’s not like listening was a skill gap for Nicki. She did it well with partners and clients. As the team leader, there were no barriers preventing Nicki from setting up a forum to listen. But she didn’t act on the feedback she was receiving. It wasn’t long before her staff started talking – some of the most disgruntled employees posted about their experiences on social media and wrote critiques about Nicki on Glassdoor. The news spread quickly across the company. Nicki’s personal brand as a leader in the organization was in jeopardy. Worse still, her results were a disaster. Management decided Nicki hadn’t demonstrated the leadership potential they’d hoped to see, and eventually she was demoted into an individual contributor role.
Why didn’t Nicki listen to her team? Why do some behaviors seem so hard to adopt - even when we know they’re in our best interest? These are questions we ask at LRN a lot. We help companies discover their values and how to translate them into actionable behavior. Our philosophy, backed by research, tells us that acting from a place of values will help your company outperform, time and time again. But even once people know that - even once they agree to behaviors they’ve helped define - they still don’t do it.
To answer these questions, we need different mental models that reflect our changing world. Decades of research predicting health-related behavior change may shed some light on why it’s so hard to change our behaviors at work.
THE REASONED ACTION FRAMEWORK
The Reasoned Action Framework (also known as the Theory of Planned Behavior or the Integrative Model of Behavioral Prediction), was pioneered by psychologists Martin Fishbein and Icek Ajzen in the 1970’s to understand why people do or do not make good health choices. The framework revolves around a simple idea: our intentions play a massive role in determining what we say and do. Granted, it’s not intentions alone – skill (your capability to do it) and the right environmental conditions (your freedom to do it) are important too, but the theory suggests that if both of those things are a given, we change because we want to change.
So what makes us want to want to do something? Reasoned Action says the answer is beliefs, specifically three types of beliefs:
- How will things turn out for me if I do it?
- Social or normative pressure
- What will others think if I do it?
- What are other people doing?
- Self-efficacy or perceptions of freedom
- Will I be able to do it?
UNDERSTANDING BELIEFS AT WORK
There’s a lot to learn from applying Reasoned Action at work. To thrive individually and collectively, we each need to take accountability for our actions. But the only way we can do that is if truly pause to understand what’s driving our behavior. Through deliberate self-awareness, we can make more conscious choices.
Let’s go back to Nicki. A Reasoned Action explanation for her inertia might have looked something like this:
- Nicki had always succeeded in her career by thinking her way through problems, maybe she could just strategize her way through the problem without needing to engage her team.
- Asking her team why they were disengaged would have been awkward and hard for everyone.
- Any feedback Nicki got would be challenging to act on. It would take precious time and energy away from more important work and, in her opinion, likely wouldn’t have made a difference anyway.
- Social or normative pressure:
- Nicki’s mentors, including her current boss, had been older men who’d succeeded due to their action-oriented focus on progress and results. Nicki never saw any of them have these kinds of “compassion” talks with their teams.
- As a woman climbing the corporate ladder, Nicki was very aware of the negative stereotypes out there. Acting from a place of compassion might only reinforce a distinctly “female” style of leadership that could hold her back from future promotions and make her seem “weak”.
- Whatever frustrations her team were having, this job was only a development opportunity. Nicki wouldn’t be with this team for long. She didn’t need her team to love her, they just needed to get the work done so she could achieve the results she needed to demonstrate success.
- Self-efficacy or perceptions of freedom:
- Acting with compassion was not in Nicki’s comfort zone. Sure, she knew how to hold focus groups with clients, or conduct needs assessments with partners, but asking her team what she was doing wrong as a leader was very different. She didn’t even know where to start.
- It seemed so out of character for Nicki to start “listening without judgement”. Even if she figured out a way, she assumed it would be perceived as inauthentic to her team. She had no confidence she’d do this well, and she had even less confidence that her team would give her honest answers.
Even if just some of these beliefs may have been lingering in Nicki’s mind, that’s a lot of good reasons why she may not have wanted to act with compassion. Reasoned Action wasn’t just built to describe why people do or don’t act; it can help us identify what beliefs we need to change or reinforce to make us more likely to take action. Use this worksheet and try it for yourself.