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/Creating Behavior Change in the Workplace (Part 2) — The Myth of Rational Behavior

Creating Behavior Change in the Workplace (Part 2)

The Myth of Rational Behavior

Let’s suppose that you followed the advice in Part 1 of this series—you “cleaned the pen” by making sure that environmental factors unrelated to employee skill sets weren’t compromising performance. Then, you correctly identified and remedied any employee skill set deficits. Surely, now you’re set to see real behavior change, right? Sorry. Still no. Because human psychology is complicated.

Satisficing

In 1978, Herbert Simon won the Nobel Prize in Economics for a body of work that included insights on the limits of rational decision-making, including behavior in corporate environments. Early micro-economic theories assumed that humans made rational decisions based on thorough cost-benefit analysis. Simon referred to this hypothetical creature as “economic man.” But Simon proposed that people have neither the time, the interest, the drive nor the analytical capacity to complete such a thorough analysis. Instead, they “satisfice”—they embrace the first action that gets them some reasonable semblance of what they hope to achieve. In essence, they take the path of least resistance and call it good. Simon referred to this non-rational actor as economic man’s cousin, “administrative man.” And it is administrative man that populates organizations.

Whereas economic man maximises, selects the best alternative from among all those available to him, his cousin, administrative man, satisfices, looks for a course of action that is satisfactory or ‘good enough’…Administrative man can make decisions with relatively simple rules of thumb that do not make impossible demands upon his capacity for thought.”

Herbert Simon,” The Economist (online), Mar 20th 2009.

While team members may want to both improve their performance and be supportive of company leaders, in many cases, their old behavior got them close enough to their workplace goals that they feel no compelling need to do anything differently. Because of satisficing, the cost of change outweighs the benefit.

What’s true for economic decision-making is also true for following-through with desired workplace behavior. Your employees “satisfice” too—they do the minimum required to achieve some semblance of what they want to achieve. And they do it with reference to what others around them are doing, sometimes referred to as “social proof.”

While team members may want to both improve their performance and be supportive of company leaders, in many cases, their old behavior got them close enough to their workplace goals that they feel no compelling need to do anything differently. Because of satisficing, the cost of change outweighs the benefit.

The Cost of Change

When you think about it, the cost of change is considerable. It includes

  • The risk of the unknown–the possibility that things might get worse instead of better
  • The emotional risk of being exposed as inadequate when attempting new things
  • The effort required to master and practice new skills
  • The need to adapt business processes and tools in unanticipated ways (and the chain of consequences this might entail)
  • The time lost because of the effort required to make the change and because new skills typically lower productivity in the short term
  • The natural discomfort of walking away from the familiar

Simon wouldn’t suggest that employees are literally applying these calculations to the changes in question. That in itself would be more work than people are inclined to do. In reality, the benefits might well outweigh the cost. But it’s perception that matters. And where behavior change is involved, the costs are known but the benefits are speculative. So, at the “gut” level, employees are likely to feel that change is a burden even if it would actually be in their best interest.

It’s important to reiterate that satisficing is not a rational process. If you do a good job selling a new program that requires behavior change and then survey employees, you might well get an enthusiastically positive response about the change. That response isn’t disingenuous. Employees may understand the rationale and the benefits at an intellectual level and even feel excited about them. But that doesn’t mean they will change their behavior.  When they get back to their daily work, satisficing takes over and their good intentions are outweighed by old habits, the comfort of the known, the effort required to overcome unanticipated hurdles and a sense that the old way is “good enough.”

Changing Behavior in a World of Satisficing

The good news is that embedded in the concept of satisficing is the answer to the question of what to do about it. If you want employees to change behavior, you have to make the new behavior the path of least resistance. To achieve this you need to do four things:

If you want employees to change behavior, you have to make the new behavior the path of least resistance.

  1. Embed the new behavior into the tools and processes that employees use every day so that the change can’t be avoided.
  2. Provide social proof by making sure managers and influencers (highly successful employees that others look up to) are conspicuously modeling the new behavior so that it is perceived as “the way things are done.”
  3. Hold employees responsible for the behavior change by measuring the new behavior and providing the appropriate rewards and penalties.
  4. Create and publicize early wins. Showing employees that the new behavior is successful in your environment changes the perception of the benefits side of the cost/benefit equation from speculative to real.

It’s easy to underestimate the impact of this last item. One of the best tools available to counteract the tendency to satisfice is the recency effect. People give more weight to recent experiences than to older ones, particularly when making predictions about the future.  So with each positive outcome, you are changing your employees internal satisficing equation by overwriting previous negative perceptions about change with weightier positive perceptions about this particular change.

While your employees are not like a spreadsheet that recalculates with every parameter change, the “gut level” sense of what’s in their interest does evolve. By marketing early successes, you are resetting employees personal agendas. When those around them start to gain rewards from adopting the new behavior, the old goal that was the basis of their previous satisficing behavior won’t seem good enough. No one wants to feel left out or left behind. Your employees will still satisfice. But they will take the path of least resistance to a new goal, which is the opening you need to create lasting behavior change.

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash
By | 2018-06-04T15:07:44+00:00 Mar 7th, 2018|Programs, Strategy|0 Comments

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