Human beings, despite some of our efforts to look wild and spontaneous, are really creatures of habit. All behaviour that we observe in each other is the result of a complex network of learned behaviours and experiences and personal biases that result in relatively predictable behaviour.
If you consider for a moment your co-workers and employees, you can likely name the people that you know will not drink the last cup of coffee in the pot, the ones who would, and the ones who would make a fresh pot of coffee in the break room with surprising accuracy. ‘Nice’, ‘Rude’, and ‘Considerate’ people are this way less because of a personal philosophy or moral compass, but as a result of ingrained habit (for a deeper look at this phenomenon, look at the work of behaviourists like B.F. Skinner and the concept of learning theories).
This is not to say of course that people aren’t good people because they want to be, they certainly are. But we can assert that there are people whose habit is to be more considerate than others. This is applicable to all types of behaviour; assertiveness, shyness, eye contact, etc. The question is, can you create behaviour change in others to better benefit your workplace?
In short, yes, and the key is relatively simple. Modern psychology tells us that while negative reinforcement (punishment for poor behaviour, consequences specific to actions etc) can be a powerful tool for behaviour change, it is not as effective or efficient as positive reinforcement. This does not mean saying ‘good job’ or ‘well done’ because these phrases do not affect a person’s self-efficacy– their belief in their own ability to accomplish tasks or goals. Increase someone’s self-efficacy, and you will increase their ability to perform tenfold.
So what are those four little words? When the person whose behaviour you want to effect is about to undertake a task, approach them with “I know you can________”. Any kind of iteration of that sentiment will do, as long as it is positively asserted and implies that you believe in a predetermined positive outcome. This is of utmost importance. If you were to use ‘think’ instead of ‘know’, you are allowing for a measure of doubt to exist. It suggests ‘I think you can, but I don’t know, so you might not’. But to say “I believe you can” or “You absolutely can” dispels that doubt. When someone displays genuine belief in our personal self-efficacy, our own positive belief is increased. If this reinforcement is repeated long enough, then the positive belief becomes the habit and becomes behaviour.
Remember, it is not enough to simply praise good behaviour. If you want to change behaviour, you need to increase self-efficacy in others. Whether you use this approach at the end of a performance review, in passing with a colleague to encourage them, or to entice a co-worker to take a new risk, you must display genuine belief in the positive outcome of the action. Repeat at every opportunity and both the desired behaviour, and the confidence of the person you are encouraging will be on the rise.
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