The Change Paradox

In business we often want to see changes in people’s behaviours. Whether it’s seeing them take more responsibility, working harder, caring more about their work, collaborating more, focussing more on quality or customer service, there’s always something we’d like to see more (or less) of.

Can your employees see why change is necessary?

The Paradox: Trying to change people’s behaviours only makes matters worse. 

That is to say: if we try to scare, shame, coerce, compel or manipulate people into changing their behaviour, they will only push back, dig in their heels, become resentful, and maybe even behave “worse” than before. And then there’s the whole ethical question, which I won’t go into today.

So, what to do? We’d still like to see changes in behaviour, but if we can’t make that happen by changing the individuals, how can we make it happen?

Lewin’s Equation

Lewin’s Equation, proposed by one of the pioneers of social psychology, Kurt Lewin, states: 

B = f(P,E)

This equation (more accurately, heuristic) says that behaviour is a function both of a person and of the environment in which that person finds themselves.

This, one of the most well-known equations in psychology, provides us with the clue to changing behaviour. Change the environment, and behaviour change is “free”. And let’s not spoil that by unilaterally changing others’ environments. People thrive on a sense of agency, too.  


Environment exercises influence on behaviour

The Environment

What do we mean by “the environment”? There exists evidence to show that changes in the physical work environment (or “built environment”) can bring about changes in behaviour. Desks, chairs, telephones, office layouts – we can examine all these and more for opportunities for change. 

But by far the biggest leverage is within “the system” – the way the work works. As John Seddon and others have demonstrated, change the way the work works, and people’s behaviours change for free.

Donella Meadows wrote in 1997 about the Twelve Points of Leverage. Top of the list is “the power to transcend paradigms”. In my vocabulary, this maps to “the capability to transition the whole organisation, intentionally, out of the prevailing world-view and into another, more effective world-view”. In other words, a wholesale overhaul or replacement of the “systemic” environment.


 Cultivating your office

The $64,000 Question

So why do so many organisation still try to change people’s behaviour through compulsion, implied threats, commands, and so on? It’s not as if managers and executives doesn’t known the score here. There must be something at work driving these folks to do the dumb thing, rather than the right thing. I myself have seen this often enough to make me weep bitter tears, for the pain, the stress, the humiliation, the alienation – and the sheer waste of human potential.


Understanding the world of behavioural economics and behavioural communication

The Organisational Mindset

I’m an organisational therapist – that is, someone who brings therapy to the organisational psyche as a whole (and not e.g. someone who simply works for an organisation, providing therapy to individuals).

As such, my take on what drives these intelligent, experienced folks to do the dumb thing is that it is often a kind of Groupthink. Managers and executives avoid opening the ugly can of worms that is assumptions about behaviour and performance, in the interests of harmony and the maintenance of a working consensus.

In other words, if even one person chose to challenge the prevailing undiscussable assumptions about how to direct and “manage” people, the world (or at least, the organisation) would collapse.


Optimizing the talent of your human resources

A Way Forward

So really – how likely is it that the organisation will actually collapse if we start talking about these things? How about we begin to talk about the variety of undiscussable subjects in the organisation? And about our fears connected with such new openness? Of course, It’s not going to be an entirely pleasant experience, but maybe it’s what the organisation needs to grow, to become a more humane place to work, and to become a more effective business, too.


Figuring out creative solutions for business entities


One last word. Expecting others to change their behaviour – however that might be accomplished – probably requires that we accept at least the possibility of changing our own behaviours, too. How could you change your environment to help that along?


Bob Marshall a.k.a. FlowchainSensei is a Organisational Therapist based in London, England. He specialises in the health, well-being and prosperity of highly-effective knowledge-work organisations.

Bob has built several software development start-ups, including Europe’s first 100% Agile Software House, and worked with numerous business organisations large and small over a career spanning more than thirty years. 

He currently writes, speaks and advises businesses on matters of organisation-wide effectiveness, and in particular on transformations of organisational mindset.




Tags: , , ,