The key to influencing behaviour in the workplace

Jerome Parisse-Brassens

Behaviour is at the core of organisational culture, so it should come as no surprise that influencing the behaviour of others is a critical component of a business’ culture journey. But how do you do that?


The key to influencing behaviour in the workplace


Leaders as key influencers of behaviour


Most of the leaders I work with are fully aware that they need to influence the behaviours of their direct reports as well as other staff if they want to lead a successful business. However, many feel ill-equipped to do this.


Leadership development and training activities are commonplace in most businesses, but they often focus on hard skills and much less on soft skills. When they do, they often deal with practical issues, such as managing conflict, giving feedback, or building consensus in a team. Whilst those are useful tools to have, they are not quite enough to start influencing behaviours at a deeper level. I have yet to come across a development program focusing on how to become a key influencer of culture. We’ve developed one at Walking the Talk.


Influencing behaviour is not about hard skills, but much more about understanding oneself and understanding one’s impact on the social dynamics at play in the organisation. Here are some of the things that you, as a leader, can start doing immediately to influence the behaviour of the people around you.


What leaders can do to influence behaviour


Influencing behaviour is easy because you don’t need to learn new skills. At the same time it is tricky because it is something you need to do all the time. Not every morning, or at certain times, but on a continual basis. So, what is it you need to do? Here are a few elements for you to consider.

  • Be a role model

This is where it all starts. Role model the behaviours you want to see others adopt, and you will see a big difference. But you need to do this consistently, over time. If you slip from time to time, or even just once on a key behaviour, you risk losing the result of all your hard work.


  • Choose your symbols carefully

Symbols are all the little (or big) things you do and which send a strong message. For example, the language you use is one symbol that is easy to change. How you spend your time and what you spend your budget on sends a strong signal about what you value. By reinforcing your messages with well-chosen symbols, you will speed up the adoption of certain behaviours. When selecting symbols, you should pay attention to the cultural context you operate in because it may change how people perceive them. For example, speaking up freely in Indonesia will be frowned upon unless you have made it clear that it is expected in the organisation.


  • Think before making decisions

Every decision you make sends a message about what is important. Where you focus your energy will focus the energy of others, so pay attention – and make wise decisions. A client of mine wanted to increase accountability and empowerment and decided to abolish the Leadership Team as a decision-making body, pushing the decision-making down in the organisation. This was reinforced with clear communication explaining why the decision was made. This initiative sent shock waves through the business, and people started taking accountability.


  • Set-up standards

Standards of behaviour are essential in helping people understand what the behaviour means and how to apply it. For example, for a behaviour such as “Dress appropriately”, you may establish a standard like “Always wear a suit and tie when meeting clients”.


  • Develop great habits

Habits are behaviours that have become unconscious over time. Identify the habits that need to be changed around you and help people to adopt the new routine. For example, you may want to change meeting times, location or agendas.


Social dynamics at play


All the above actions need to be considered in the context of the environment that you operate in. What are the pressures that staff are experiencing and is this impacting how they behave? Are staff rewarded on individual commissions and sales whilst you are trying to develop a collaborative culture? If so, you need to tweak/adapt/review your decisions, symbols or standards. Reality check! Are you a subsidiary or a Region of a large multinational firm, whose culture works contrary to the behaviours you are trying to shift? If so, how can you take this into account and make sure that your message is still heard?


At the end of the day, what matters is not so much the messages that you send, but how they are received. You may be wondering why you have been doing the right thing for 12 months and staff have not changed yet? You may need to adopt an outside-in view of your leadership: forget the leader you are, put yourself in the shoes of your direct reports or colleagues, and see the world through their eyes. How does the environment distort the messages you’ve been sending?


Influencing behaviour is not only possible, it is also quick when a combination of factors are met: 1) you are focussing on a very small number of behaviours, 2) those behaviours make sense to the business and to individuals, 3) you are a role model for these behaviours, 4) you have studied the social dynamics at play and have made sure that the messages are heard correctly, 5) you are self-aware and manage the symbols you send and the decisions you make strategically.


If you are still unsure about how to influence behaviour after reading this blog, just think of your children or those around you if you don’t have any. The principles at play in the organisation are not very different from those applied when raising children.

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