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Changing people’s behavior by changing the environment

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When a change in people’s behavior is needed for business reasons, how can you do it? Bob Marshall (a specialist in organizational therapy) wrote about how to change the behavior of people, by looking at the system, and changing the environment.

In the article the change paradox in Business Technology, Bob describes a problem he sees when changing people’s behavior:

Trying to change people’s behaviours only makes matters worse. (…) 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.

He refers to Lewin’s Equation “B=f(P,E)” which says: Behavior is a function of the person in their environment. Using this equation he suggest to pay more attention to the environment and what he calls “the system”:

Change the environment, and behaviour change is “free”.

(…) 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.

Bob gives a reason why he thinks that organizations do not address the way people work, and suggests a way forward for changing the environment:

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.

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.

Jurgen Appelo refers to the broken windows theory in fix the small problems first, and describes how behavior is influenced by other people’s behavior:

People tend to adapt their behavior to the environment that they live in. (…) Given that people also copy each other’s norms and behaviors (…), and that therefore bad behavior is likely to lead to more bad behavior (…), it is easy to see how all these concepts combined automatically lead to the Broken Windows theory.

He concludes that to change behavior, it helps to change the environment by addressing small problems:

But what can we learn from this? In my opinion, two things:

  1. Big problems often start as a small problems, that weren’t nipped in the bud when they were still manageable;
  2. If a problem is too big to handle, then target another related but smaller problem.

Address the small problems first, and you'll have less work when addressing the big ones.

Peter Bergman gives several examples in the easiest way to change people's behavior of how changing the environment helped to change behavior:

A client was complaining to me that his receptionist was not warm and friendly with people when they walked in. Guess where the receptionist sat? Think bank teller. That's right. The receptionist sat behind a glass window! Don't send her to communication training. Just remove the glass.

One of my clients wanted everyone in the company to fill out a time sheet, and they were having a very hard time getting people to do it. Their mindset was compliance. (…) Well, it turns out that people didn't mind the idea of filling out a timesheet, but they were frustrated by the technology. (…) Once we changed the form and the technology it was on, everyone started using it.

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