Changing People's Behavior 

January 26, 2024

Some marriages end in divorce. The spouses complain about each other’s behavior and they gave up on changing it.

There is an expression, in many languages, that says that you can bring a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. This expression is used to communicate that people don’t change. If you try to change them, it will be a useless effort, a frustrating one, which might even lead to animosity. The result, divorce or loss of intimacy and love while still married.

I think the anger and frustrations stem from not understanding well the difference between behavior, style and personality and thus expecting changes which are not realistic to expect.

Behavior is how a person acts at a certain moment. Style is how that person behaves over time. Personality is how they prefer to behave ignoring the conditions of the moment or over time.

I suggest behavior is caused mostly by the conditions, by the environment of the moment and very little by genetics. Style is caused by a combination of environment and genetics. Personality is caused by genetics. This distinction gives us the key to understand what can be changed and how.

Since the behavior is caused by the environment, by the conditions at the time, change conditions and watch people change their behavior.

One of the old pioneers of management theory, Mary Parker Follet, called it the law of the situation. Instead of trying to convince people to leave a meeting room, just shout “fire” and see how fast people flee the room. Same with the horse. Ride the horse for hours in hot weather with no water in sight and at the end of the day bring it to a water hole. No need to prod. It will drink the water.

In managing a company or an organization, analyze how the environment in which people operate is impacting their behavior and if behavior needs changing, change the environment within which they operate and they will change their behavior.

As an example, a client of the Adizes Institute made it as a goal to have the best motivated workers in the city. He achieved it but not by just paying them more. He changed the working environment instead. He eliminated the executive dining room and made the workers cafeteria a first-class great looking dining hall and insisted he and all top executives eat with the workers at their tables. And canceled the special executive elevator to the executive floor. And made the bathrooms the quality of a four-star hotel accessible to all employees. He had the Adizes sessions (called Syndag)where all employees, by department, led by an experienced and Certified Adizes Organizational Symbergist share what holds them from performing the best they can and feeling the best they can feel at work. And guess what happened to motivation...

As a manager, a leader, if you need to change someone’s behavior find out what kind of an environment you need to create, in order to generate the behavior you want.

To change a style requires continuous change of behavior until it becomes a routine. It requires continuous reinforcement of the desired behavior and the penalizing of the wrong behavior. It requires clarity of what gets rewarded and what not, and it needs to be applied with absolute consistency.

Take the Pavlovian dog experiment. If my memory does not fail me, the experiment was as follows: Each time the dog was going to be given food, the dog was presented with a large plate. So it got used to expect that a large plate meant food. The dog would wiggle its tail and show pleasure when the large plate was put in front of it. However, each time it was presented with a small plate, it was given a small electrical shock. The dog behavior was of fear and pain just by being presented with a small plate. This dog you might say had a style. His behavior, long after the experiment ended, was: Big plate happy dog. Small plate, crying dog.

In a subsequent experiment, the dog was given a large plate but sometimes it was food and sometimes an electrical shock. And the same with the small plate. The dog did not know what was coming and started behaving very irritated and in pain. It developed a style of a neurotic dog.

And that is what happens in some companies. The reward and punishment system is inconsistent and confusing. No strange people act strange and are often unpredictable.

To change a style requires continuous change of behavior until it becomes a routine. It requires continuous reinforcement of the desired behavior and penalizing the wrong behavior. It requires clarity of what gets rewarded and what not and it needs to be applied with absolute consistency.

Changing a personality is not possible because it is physiologically determined. We are born with a certain personality. It will not change. Certain aspects of one's personality, behavior and, with more effort, style can be improved. They are still, let us assume, bossy, dominating, but now they listen more before they decide.

The divorce or anger comes from wanting to change a personality or assume there is a personality defect while in reality, it was a style issue or just a momentary behavior.To change a style first check that it is not a momentary behavior.

The mistake I believe many do is to witness a behavior, or a style and assume it is a personality fault and try to get rid of that person while in reality, the person is just reacting to the working conditions, or the person developed a bad style because the stimuli are inconsistent and confusing. ….

Written by
Dr. Ichak Adizes