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How to change ingrained behaviours at work

11 Jan 2019 By Nick Henley

Whether it’s leaders or employees, HR professionals can shift even the most seemingly intractable traits, says Nick Henley 

It’s not even 8am and you’re onto your 20th email already. In the early morning fog of your mind, you notice the problems that seem to go round and round in circles are clustering around three areas: emotional control issues among senior leaders, a reported lack of role clarity in the engagement survey, and the ongoing issue of bias and discrimination.

Just as you finish a reply, your phone rings. It’s the CEO. She’s wondering how you’re getting on with the culture change initiative. Your throat seizes slightly as you reply, politely and somewhat tersely, that you’ll report back to her with a summary later. The sigh of relief you breathe is cut short by a call about a middle manager…

If this is a day in your life in HR, you could be forgiven for feeling just a little bit stressed. Maybe over the course of your career you’ve found, like others, that emotional control issues almost always are resolved by staff turnover and dismissals; reorganisations only sometimes resolve role clarity issues; and no matter what you do to address bias and discrimination, the deep sources of it don’t seem to get resolved.

If this is the case, maybe it’s time for a reappraisal of how we are tackling these issues.

HR has been put under more pressure to apply a more evidence-based approach to its decision-making; it’s clear heavy reliance on personal experience just won’t do any more, and perhaps that explains the perennial nature of these challenges that never get resolved. 

The first step is to identify the root cause of each issue. Take role clarity. The data might appear at enterprise level, but that doesn’t mean it is best resolved at that level. Implementing a reorganisation or a new IT-based solution, attractive as it may sound, may not be the right medicine for the malaise. We need to get our diagnosis right first.

Recent advances in our understanding of human nature have yielded some fascinating insights into evolutionary traits we share. Traits are the source of ‘deep behaviours’ that are stable across our lifetime and change very little. For example, there’s now convincing evidence that our reactivity to anxiety is hereditary. If someone is highly reactive in this area, clearly the remedy needs to be different to a person who is not so reactive.

When it comes to bias and discrimination, research in this field so far has discovered that we discriminate towards people unconsciously in just milliseconds. Discriminatory behaviours are linked both to conscious and unconscious processing, and meta analyses of interventions so far show little positive effect from unconscious bias training

It’s clear that research in this area is in its infancy, yet it hasn’t stopped HR departments shelling out an estimated £2bn annually to try to fix the issue. Could this be yet another misdiagnosis? For example, instead of looking at deep behaviours guiding us against certain people, maybe we should be looking at behaviours that guide us towards certain types of people – and what evolutionary reason might be behind that. Suffice to say that any solution here is going to be found in the realm of deep behaviours, rather than surface policy directives.

Changing deep behaviours

If some of the perennial ‘groundhog day’ type issues that never get resolved in HR do indeed have deep roots, what do we need to do differently in the way we run things? Here are some key steps as a suggestion:

  • Identify the behaviour. What is the cause of it? What could be the cause(s) of it?
  • Start with changing the surface skill or behaviour to its desired state, with a before and after intervention (critical)
  • Who accomplished change? Who was not able to, and why? 
  • Surface the trait behaviours that could be holding those people back. Do this in parallel with identifying their talents.

It may be that we have grown accustomed to a reactive way of working where we expect and apply ‘quick fixes’ without giving due regard to the longer-term, higher-value initiatives we can implement at a human level that can really transform the organisation. Understanding deep behaviours is critical to that.

Nick Henley is a culture change consultant

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