Adaptability and comfortability with change is high on the desirable skills list for great leaders, especially after the last few pandemic-driven years. But resilience in the face of external change is different from deliberately facilitating internal change. What if a leader is trying to drive change, but no one’s on board? Or worse, what if their efforts work for a while, and then momentum slowly peters out without any clear reason?
It raises an interesting question: Why does change stick sometimes and not others? Understanding the difference between behavior modification and behavior change is important. It’s a valuable way to build lasting change in leaders, employees, and organizations; leadership coaching can enable that.
Change as Modification
The most well-known, concrete form of behavior change is behavior modification. Remember Pavlov’s dogs? Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov’s research showed that dogs can be conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell. Easy to understand, this time-honored approach to behavior change is a favorite among leaders and companies alike.
Rewards and punishments often play a central role in making new behaviors stick or in correcting undesirable ones. They can be tangible, like earning a bonus or losing your favorite perks, or they can be emotional like, “I’m so proud of/disappointed in you.” These tactics are popular because they work well in simple situations. Think young children and workers with simple, repetitive tasks.
However, for leaders in complex, high-growth organizations, simplistic rewards or punishments to promote lasting behavior modification don’t work. First, an external authority figure is required to maintain the desired behavior. Without reinforcement, employees trained just to respond to external stimuli quickly fall out of the behavior pattern. Basically, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.”
Second, behaviors needed for success in business are far too complex to simply reward or punish without context. Plus, the pace of business is too fast to apply those tactics in a timely fashion that will effectively reinforce desired behaviors.
Thoughts Beat Training
Behavioral training alone does not make for lasting change in complex situations. Even for high-level leaders who are motivated to change their ways, human nature tends to take over and well-worn behavior patterns often win out over new ways of operating—especially under stress. Even leaders with the best of intentions tend to fall back on long-held approaches.
But with leadership coaching, talent leaders can help other leaders change the way they think about a situation and—voila!—new behaviors follow. For example, when leaders think of colleagues as competitors, aggressive behaviors often result. When leaders think of colleagues as partners, they’re more likely to collaborate.
Leadership Coaching Encourages Curiosity
To help executives develop long-lasting behavior change, a leadership coach can help them uncover deeply held thoughts that may be problematic. Once they bring that thinking to the surface, leaders can explore, practice, and adopt new perspectives. From this mental practice, new behaviors that were once hard to sustain can fall into place and remain in practice with less effort.
The key to achieving this result is to uncover what thinking is influencing the undesirable behavior. Certain types of thinking are often deeply rooted and buried under strong emotions. It requires a skillful, trusted leadership coach to gently scrape away years of unconsciously reinforced and outmoded thinking. Once long-standing thinking patterns are clear, the possibility of profound change is at hand.
Next time you’re having trouble changing a leader’s behavior, instead of trying to instill a new habit with rewards and punishments, look deeper. You may be surprised by what you find. Doing this work can have long-term benefits for the leader, their direct reports from her, and the organization.