Changing employee behavior

Changing employee behavior

13 min.
April 2018
Discovery Event

As anyone who has enthusiastically resolved to do more sport or stop smoking knows, it is hard to change one’s behavior in a sustained way. So, imagine how much more difficult it is to motivate others to embrace change.

Yet this is one of the main managerial roles: To help employees change their behavior, for both the employees’ and the company’s benefit. Managers can do so by building essential skills or encouraging direct reports to stop doing something or to do it better or differently.

According to an IMD global study of 500 executives, managers believe that only one in two attempts to change employee behavior is successful. Around a third know the techniques and are sure they can motivate their employees to change, but only one in ten managers knows how to do so in a sustained way. These results are not surprising, since managers tend to use limited tools to identify what needs to change and apply conventional tactics, such as advice, feedback or training, to resolve the issue. Rarely do they explore how to change. They also mostly underestimate the influence of the context – the environment and conditions in which behavioral change happen – on changing employee behavior and sustaining it.

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. This has been proved in various settings. For example, more than half of prisoners relapse into criminal behavior if they are released into the old unchanged context. Similarly, brainwashed US veterans from the Korean war reverted to their old habits and behaviors once back home.

In a business setting, managers’ perceptions and attitudes are another important element of context. These are set within the first month, during which most managers instinctively divide their employees into those they can rely on and the rest, thus creating long-lasting psychological stereotypes of strong and weak performers (Table 1).

Table 1: Context managers create for their subordinates 

  Strong performers Weak performers



More motivated, proactive, innovative, big picture thinkers, better leaders, positive, agile and open-minded More defensive, parochial, critical of innovation, prone to hoard information and disrespect authority, unlikely to go beyond the call of duty



Explains “what and why,” open to their ideas, act as sparring partners, available, shares more, assigns more challenging tasks, more personal interest, invests in them Tells “how,” pushes own ideas, monitors actions and results, focuses on KPIs, less patient, more directive, less delegation


This psychological stereotyping causes different approaches and attitudes when dealing with strong vs. weak performers, thus reinforcing their behavior. When leaders have higher expectations, this increases direct reports’ motivation and effort and improves performance. In psychology, this is known as the Pygmalion effect.

Conversely, managers’ negative expectations set their employees up to fail: Bosses assign routine tasks with little scope for employees to take charge; they monitor more closely and micro-manage, thus conveying lack of trust. Employees lose confidence and feel less inclined to take risks or come up with ideas; a downward spiral begins.The single most influential factor in a person’s working context is their relationship with their manager, so changing the context means managers doing something differently.

Change levers

In order to achieve sustained change in employees’ behavior and help them perform and develop effectively, it is not enough for managers to change their own attitude towards their subordinates. They should also use the key levers summarized in the MAPS model2motivationabilitypsychological capital and supporting environment (Figure 1).



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