3 Biggest Mistakes in Managing Behaviour

August 3, 2022 | Peter Cronin

A guy thinking and looking worried

When it comes to managing behaviour, it can be considered very simple; give people what they want for what you want, or very complex; digging into the psychology of motivation. For the most part a reasonable balance will work, understanding why people do what they do (podcast here on that), coupling positive consequences with what you want, such as more attention to detail in work, and coupling negative consequences to behaviours you don’t want, perhaps closing off tasks without properly completing them.

There are three very common pitfalls that can arise when attempting to apply this in reality. Usually if you’re trying to lead and manage people’s behaviour and it just isn’t working, one of these three are the culprit.

Universal Consequences

A common error is to classify consequences as universally positive or negative. This assumes that the same things are positive or negative for all people who experience them. While there are a lot of similarities between people, not everyone will like or dislike the same things. For example, a consequence that many people would like is having someone buy them a coffee in the morning. However, if you dislike coffee then it’s likely neutral at best. It may even be negative because it makes you feel like you must drink it. They have given an obligation rather than a gift.

You often need to use these generic rules or stereotypes as a start point, especially when dealing with people you don’t know or larger groups. However, it’s important not to get attached to certain consequences being positive or negative. You will need to adjust based on the individual you are trying to influence.

Making this error can be quite damaging in the workplace and lead to the opposite outcome from what you wanted. For example, many people like recognition from their peers when they do good work. This could be something like acknowledgement in a team meeting for a job well done. However, some people really hate being the centre of attention. If they feel like they are being put on the spot they may actively try to do a worse job to avoid it happening in the future. Rather than reinforcing a desired behaviour, you may accidentally punish it and make it less likely to happen.

Consequences in Absolute Terms

A common error is assessing consequences in absolute terms (labelling them good or bad), rather than how they impact the person doing the behaviour. Consequences impact behaviour based on how they are perceived by the person doing the behaviour. There are many behaviours with consequences that we think of as bad in absolute terms, such as stealing, littering, or being abusive to others. These impact the people around us in multiple negative ways. Therefore, it can be tempting to classify the behaviours as having negative consequences and therefore being less likely to happen.

However, these negative consequences are irrelevant unless they impact the person doing the behaviour in any meaningful way. A person who throws rubbish out of a car window as they pass through town doesn’t care and isn’t impacted by the streets looking like a dump. The only relevant consequence is that they get the rubbish out of their own car, which is a positive consequence for them, making them more likely to do the behaviour. The only negative consequences on them are a small risk of being fined and possibly their conscience.

Binary Success or Failure

When using this process, it is easy to view success as binary. Either the behaviour has completely changed, or it hasn’t. Instead, it should be treated as a process of ongoing improvement. Some behaviours are deeply ingrained in habits or culture. They may also be held in place by the environment. This doesn’t mean they can’t be changed but complete change may be next to impossible.

Any noticeable shift should be seen as a win. It’s a move in the right direction, even if something only happens 5% less often.