The Challenge of Changing Behaviors

[We revised this posting on Wednesday 26 March.]

This posting is inspired by the questions Joe Alberti asked here. Joe teaches theatre and acting, and is working on a PhD. Some time ago he began studying wierd stuff – the writings of Fernando Flores and Humberto Maturana in particular. I like the heart of Joe’s question: the central challenge he faces is changing the orientations, ways of thinking and acting – the behaviors – of the people with whom he works. That is the central challenge that a lot of us face.

Frequently people speak of “those not under our control” as emblematic of this challenge. The way we talk about work in modern organizations produces the illusion that we have some people under our control, and others not. This is an illusion. We don’t control cats, we don’t control goats, we don’t control dogs, we don’t control horses, and we don’t control human beings. We dance with them in consensual spaces. (Yes, I agree that there are places and situations in the world where, effectively, people move with guns held at their heads. That is not the common situation in the developed world today.)

The overall challenge is to design reliable structures in which the right kinds of actions can happen when people are working together.

The point we are developing is that all of that happens in language. Once we frame the inquiry in that way, it is relatively easy to think of examples of “worlds” in which reliable designs have been prepared and maintained over long periods of time, including for example international transport, banking, and air traffic control.

I, and those with whom I have been working, stand on a body of theory about how human beings coordinate action with each other, how they listen to each other’s concerns, how they explore possible actions, come to resolution about actions to take, how they take action with each other, and so forth. This body of theory has been developed over the last 50 years and is still not part of the common sense of management, nor is it even taught in the major schools concerned with managing institutional changes. One important part of the theory has to do with language-action. We have been talking about language-action in other posts. One great virtue of the perspective of language-action is that it allows someone who has done a minimal amount of study to make powerful diagnoses about why action is or is not happening in many organizational settings.

We moderns have crazy interpretations about what we do in our work.

One example of what I consider a crazy interpretation is that project managers think of themselves as managing abstract constructions called projects, rather than preparing and training teams to make and fulfill promises that make the projects successful. Architects, similarly, think that their job is to “design buildings,” rather than to build the contextual spaces in which a group of people will listen to each other’s concerns and make a wide variety of language actions that will result in the design and prepare for the construction of a new building.

Here is a third example. Consider the challenge of training people to have more effective meetings. If you have been in a meeting for a while and you see the follow (very common) elements — a) many assessments being offered without serious grounding (as in meetings attempting to make sense of some important difficulties), and b) no specific requests or offers being made — then the odds are very high that what is happening is essentially entirely waste. Someone minimally trained to observe language-action, especially the distinctions among assessments, assertions, requests, and offers, will be able to suggest a number of effective actions for intervening to shift the direction of the meeting.

In every case where we are dealing with the serious business of guiding the work of an enterprise, we have to shift how the people throughout the extended network of the enterprise think and act in language. In the example of building hospitals, we are continuously attending to and shifting the interpretations of architects, contractors, executives and managers, doctors and nurses, suppliers, the board of directors, longstanding employees and difficult gen-Xers, the governments with which we interact, unions and associations, and right on down to the most apparently independent and autonomous carpenter. From this perspective, the small independent contractor – those over whom, from the “old” and common perspective we would think we have the “least control” – may in fact be our least challenging subjects. They often listen more carefully, and we often have relatively more leverage with them.

Important changes in behaviors normally cannot be brought through reason or traditional patterns of incentives. The old behaviors that need to be changed are almost found widely through particular cultural or social groups. They are not, normally, the idiosyncratic behaviors of individuals. The logic of the habits that need to be changed is embedded in structures the language shared by the community. The behaviors occur logically, but not according to the logic we are normally taught in schools. A small example: mistrustful people move in particular ways when they coordinate action with others. If you take the time to make a careful interpretation about how a particular structure of mistrust you are observing has evolved, and develop an approach to building trust anew, you can perform what would have appeared in the past to be a miracle. A Toyota manager, on finding that s/he can no longer trust a particular vendor to produce reliable results, will send a team to that vendor’s facility to help them reconstruct their capacity to produce reliable results. More often than not, a US manufacturer will issue warnings, apply penalties, and then change suppliers. See the difference?

One of the skills that I have developed over the last 20+ years is producing a new kind of diagnosis about why people get the results they get in their work with others in their networks, and designing and building ways to intervene in the prevailing messes and embedded habits.


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