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Changing Behavior

Question: It seems we spend a lot of time revising systems, making process changes, inventing new ways to do things, etc., but all too often people revert back to their old behavior.  Are there things that can be done to ensure that changed behavior stays changed?

Answer: It’s difficult enough to (pick your metaphor) “get a tiger to change his stripes,” or “teach an old dog new tricks.”  But once you do, the bigger challenge is preventing people from reverting back to their old behavior, which is invariably easier and more comfortable.

So here are some suggestions that may maximize your chance of maintaining the new behavior:

  • Make the person whose behavior needs to be changed a co-conspirator.  When you discuss creating the behavior change with someone, guide the discussion so they feel some sense of ownership - that it’s their idea.  It’s human nature to embrace our own ideas more strongly than others.
  • Reinforce the new behavior.  Make sure you overtly thank the people who have changed and let them know how much the new behavior is making a positive difference.  It’s particularly important to do this at the time when they are exhibiting the new, desired behavior.
  • Publicize the positive results from the new behavior.  Let other people in the agency know what changes were done and how things are better/improved.  And, do it throughout the agency to both junior and senior people.
  • Make immediate course corrections when necessary.  If the person reverts back to the old behavior, it’s important to discuss it and get back on track as quickly as possible.  Obviously, this should be done in private and in a constructive manner.

As a department and an agency, we need to embrace change if we are going to grow and get better.  Primarily we need to determine the right changes to make to achieve our goals.  But equally important is to go beyond giving lip service to change and exhibit the behavior that makes the change real.


Bruce Kelley

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