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Brain Circuits

Changing employee behavior part one: are you part of the problem?

Published 6 July 2021 in Brain Circuits • 3 min read

Changing someone’s behavior in a sustained way can be challenging, and motivating others to embrace change even more so. Yet this is one of the main managerial roles: To help employees change their behavior, for both the employees’ and the company’s benefit.

According to an IMD global study of 500 executives, managers believe that only one in two attempts to change employee behavior is successful. These results are not surprising, since managers tend to use limited tools to identify what needs to change and rarely explore how to do so. They also mostly underestimate the influence of the context – the environment and conditions in which behavioral change happens.

How context influences behavior

It is well known that context and life circumstances – such as support from family and friends, the number and quality of social connections, external rules and culture – are vital for sustaining changed behavior.

In a business setting, managers’ perceptions and attitudes are an important element of context

In the workplace, managers tend to set their perceptions of employees instinctively within the first month, and according to research by IMD colleagues Manzoni and Barsoux, managers tend to divide employees into those they believe are reliable, strong performers and the rest.

Managers believe strong performers are more motivated, proactive, innovative, agile and better leaders. When interacting with these employees they tend to explain “what and why”, open their ideas, act as sparring partners, assign more challenging tasks and show more personal interest in them.

In contrast, managers tend to treat the employees that aren’t immediately perceived as strong performers differently, pushing their own ideas, monitoring actions and results with a bigger focus on KPIs, and they tend to be less patient and delegate less towards these employees.

This psychological stereotyping can result in different behavioural outcomes. When leaders have higher expectations, this increases direct reports’ motivation and effort and improves performance, known in psychology as the Pygmalion effect.

Conversely, managers’ negative expectations can result in employees losing confidence and feeling less inclined to take risks or come up with ideas.

There are things you can do to change employees’ behavior which we will cover more in parts two through four, but the first step is to recognize your own perceptions of people and examine how you are treating them. The change begins with your own behavior, then you can activate key levers to help change how your employees are acting.

You can read part two here.


Shlomo Ben-Hur

Shlomo Ben-Hur

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior

Professor Shlomo Ben-Hur works on the psychological and cultural aspects of leadership, and the strategic and operational elements of talent management and corporate learning. He is the Director of IMD’s Changing Employee Behavior program and IMD’s Organizational Learning in Action, and author of the books Talent Intelligence, The Business of Corporate Learning, Changing Employee Behavior: a Practical Guide for Managers and Leadership OS.


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