Thinking through the challenge of changing behaviour, I was recently talking to a coronary heart surgeon at a networking event.  I was interested in success rates and how his patient’s disease was related to their life styles.  He told me that if you look at people 2 years post coronary-artery bypass surgery, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle. And that’s been studied over and over again. He went on to tell me that we’re missing some link in there, even though they know they have a potentially fatal disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can’t.

This conversation intrigued me as I saw the parallel that exists between the behavioural changes people have to make after life-threatening illness and the changes organisations ask employees to make during or after major transformation efforts.  In particular, what tactics and strategies do those who successfully make sustained behavioural changes follow versus those who do not?

Later in the conversation, I asked the same medical professional what he saw in those who made sustained change post-surgery.  He told me that in addition to cutting out unhealthy habits (smoking, drinking etc.), the biggest factor in determining those who would or would not sustain the behavioural changes required to stay well was the surroundings they went back to.  Altering the physical environment, routines, and associations seemed to be a key factor for those who sustained successful behavioural changes.

Changing behaviour is the most important challenge for business

Changing the behaviour of people isn’t just the biggest challenge in health care, it’s the most important challenge for businesses trying to compete in a turbulent world.  In the field of change management research shows that as many as 70% of organisational change initiatives requiring major employee behaviour changes are not sustained beyond 2 years.  This has huge significance to leaders investing time and resources in organisational transformation efforts.

According to John Kotter (a Harvard Business School professor who has studied dozens of organizations in the midst of upheaval) the central issue is never strategy, structure or systems. The core of the matter is always about changing the behaviour of people.  Those people may be called upon to respond to profound upheavals in marketplace dynamics – the rise of a new global competitor, say, or a shift from a regulated to a deregulated environment – or to a corporate reorganisation, merger, or entry into a new business.  In doing so, these employees may be expected to break long-established ways of working, take on new tasks and adopt new processes all of which may cause discomfort.  In such cases, the pull of going back to the “old ways” can be irresistible unless the organisation is working to support these individuals to sustain these changes.

So what can leaders do to support employees facing the urge to resort to old habits and routines?  Here are a few issues to consider:

Rules and Policies

Eliminate or change those that support old ways and create new ones that reinforce desired behaviours.

Rewards and Penalties

Tie behaviours to the performance management system.  Behaviours that support (or work against) the change should be discussed in performance reviews.  Performance ratings, bonuses, promotions, merit increases, etc. should all be reviewed to ensure compatibility with the new culture.  These are all key levers to tie change to culture.

Organisational Structure

Reporting relationships, job descriptions, work hours, job titles, department structures, etc. can all be modified as appropriate to sustain change.

Induction and Training

Consider replacing old programmes with new training that supports the change.  Training ideally should provide hands-on experience with new procedures just before the change is officially implemented.  People must not only have knowledge of the change, but also they must have the necessary skills and abilities to implement the change.  Induction programmes are a great way to educate new employees on the behavioural norms expected within the organisation.

Ceremonies and Events

Recognition and rewards, events, dinners, celebrations, etc. can be used to recognise and reward new ways of behaving and hitting goals that are in support of the change effort.

Leadership modelling

Perhaps most important of all, individuals in leadership and management positions must visibly demonstrate their support of the change at every moment—both publicly and privately.

If you would like a copy of our free “Make Change Stick” fact sheet, please download it here