How to change work behaviours you don’t like

Think about it for a moment: which of your behaviours do you dislike? Avoid giving honest feedback to your manager? Complaining about the lack of support from colleagues but not asking for help? Interrupting others? Each of us has behaviours we’d like to change, but we often find it difficult to do so or we don’t know how to get started.

Here are a few tips if you want to give it a try:

1. Know what you want to change

Less is more. First of all, you have to decide which behaviour you want to work on. Choose the behaviour that annoys you the most and will make the biggest difference to you and others if you change it. Perhaps this behaviour even triggers other annoying habits, for example: avoiding giving feedback to your boss could lead to complaining about a lack of support from your colleagues, or interrupting instead of listening in a team meeting may be the first step to micromanaging (interrupting -> indicating the best solution -> taking over the extra workload instead of delegating).

Make it specific. Let’s take a deeper look at the “interrupting others” example. You’ve already received some complaints about it and you regret doing it. In what context does it happen? Being specific about what you want to change and when will help you find the best way to do it and to measure success.

Keep a log. Observe yourself for one or two weeks and write down the answers to the following questions:

• In what context do you tend to interrupt others? In every meeting? Only during discussions with your team or with your boss as well? How often do you interrupt others during the meeting? How long do you keep talking? Do you tend to interrupt the same people when chatting over the lunch break?

• What do you recall yourself feeling and thinking before, during, and after you interrupted others?

• What’s the next thing that happens after interrupting? Do you interrupt in order to explain? Counter-argue? Suggest a solution? How do others react to your behaviour?

Delving into the specifics will help you to understand more about what specifically you should change - and perhaps why you haven’t started yet. The behaviour “stop interrupting others” for example, can be broken down as:

Target behaviour:            Stop interrupting others
When:                               During business meetings with team members
                                          at the end of the day
Feelings/thoughts:           Boredom, sense of urgency
Consequence:                  Others stop talking, they listen to me, usually
                                         follow my advice, we finish the meeting earlier

2. Think about the intention behind your actions

What need do you satisfy by using this behaviour? What might your (hidden) intention be? Sometimes it’s pretty obvious, such as showing dominance. However, you may come up with more complex answers, especially in situations where the negative consequence of a behaviour is the expression of a positive intention, for example, micromanaging may be an expression of caring for others or the answer to your need for safety. Acknowledging the positive intention is important in order to find an alternative behaviour or set of behaviours that will both serve the intention and avoid the negative consequences of the old behaviour.

3. Find an alternative

Do you remember the Pavlovian experiment with the dog and the bell? If you want a different reaction, change the stimulus. Instead of waiting for the end of the day to have those meetings, how about having them first thing in the morning? That way you’ll be more likely to focus on the behaviour you want to avoid. Sometimes it helps to tweak the situation around the person, to have a different default setting. If the annoying habit is about stopping at Dunkin’ Donuts every afternoon, then take a different route home next time. Or try leaving earlier or later from work and see what happens. You need to try out different changes to the stimulus to find the best way to change your reaction.

Having identified the intention behind your behaviour will help you find an alternative. If poor quality ideas are being discussed during a meeting and you interrupt others in order to push the meeting forward, then you may need to interrupt the meeting and insist on better preparation. Alternatively, you could prepare the questions you want to ask in order to help your team members broaden their thinking (instead of interrupting).

4. Create a support system

How do you make the new behaviours stick? By making the best of small wins and remembering the tale of Odysseus:

i) Behaviours don’t change all at once: the first time you try the alternative behaviour, be prepared to fail. You may go as far as interrupting the other person and at that moment remember that you were meant to ask a question instead. Realising what you should have done is a small win. Don’t give up. To achieve sustainable behaviour change, you need persistence and positive thinking.

ii) The tale of Odysseus: Odysseus was both prudent and a man of pleasures, so he didn’t make his way through the Sirens’ sea caves without taking precautions. He plugged wax into his men’s ears and let himself be bound to the mast of the ship. Every time his men saw him shouting, they’d been instructed to tie him tighter.
This example shows that our willpower isn’t always strong enough, so you need to seek the support of others. Share your observations with your team members. Let them know you’re aware of the annoying behaviour and the negative consequences. Explain what your positive behaviour is (asking questions instead). Ask for their support: assign a member of your team to provide you with direct feedback when you interrupt a person talking, and perhaps ask a different person to count how many questions you asked next time.

5. Manage success

Depending on the behaviour you want to change, success may come sooner or later. Decide how much time to give yourself to change and set a reminder in your calendar. What will your trial period be? A month? Six months? How will you know if you’ve made a difference? Will you be monitoring yourself by keeping a log? Will you ask for feedback at the end of the trial period? Being able to consciously control your old behaviour is another good criteria for successful measurement.

Changing behaviour is hard work, as you need to redirect the old behaviour and replace it with a new routine. Showing your team that you’re willing to change is the best way to show that you ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to self-improvement and will motivate them to do the same.