Why Behavior Beats Attitude when Introducing Cultural Change

If you want people to act differently, focus on behavior, not attitude.

It happens to every leader of change at some point: maybe you’ve discovered a way to make your mission even more impactful, or perhaps you’ve got some clever ideas that will improve decision-making and productivity. Whatever it is, you may eagerly share these ideas with your team—only to find their response is, well, less than enthusiastic.

When it comes to making change, people like to think it’s as easy as the ABCs: if you could get people to adjust their Attitude, that will influence their Behavior, resulting in Cultural Change. But the funny thing about humans is that sometimes, it’s just the reverse—your behavior actually impacts how you feel about things. Self-perception is the principle that we use our actions to interpret our feelings. In a classic study, for instance, people were more likely to agree with a proposal when they nodded their heads while reading it. Or take the study in which participants were asked to lie to new participants about how much they enjoyed doing a boring task. In a later survey, participants who were paid $1 to lie were more likely to rate the task as actually interesting, compared to participants who were paid $20. Those who were paid less had to “invent” a reason for compromising their integrity, whereas the well-paid participants felt the trade-off was worth it!

In other words, don’t worry so much about attitudes—you don’t necessarily need everyone to be “rah-rah” about doing things differently. Just as you would when attempting to win over cynics, focus on making real changes to behavior and let attitudes come around:

  • Evaluate how behaviors must change, and how they’ll be rewarded. Before sharing what changes you want to see, make sure the behaviors you’re asking for are applicable, simple, advantageous, testable, and observable. If any of these factors is missing, you risk a higher rate of rejection. You should also evaluate different motivations and incentives. If people don’t get onboard with your ideas right away, don’t assume it’s out of spite or laziness. They may have perfectly valid objections, or their incentive structure may not align with what you’re asking for.
  • Create new good habits (or break bad ones). Think about what behaviors have become ingrained within your culture, and what “rewards” they provide. Then, try swapping out behaviors to see if you can still achieve that reward. For instance, complaining about a difficult client can actually feel like a team bonding moment. To give people that sense of bonding without disparaging the client, you could try holding team retros, or inviting the team to a happy hour.
  • Touch base with the team. Finally, don’t forget the power of a regular 1:1. This gives you both an opportunity to exchange feedback, and discuss what behaviors they need to adopt to get the next level.
Our Newsletter
Why Behavior Beats Attitude when Introducing Cultural Change
Search NOBL