4 Ways to Change Behaviour

There are 4 ways to change people’s behaviour:

The first is the stick:

Beat people until they do what you want. The stick works, but people hate being controlled, they will rebel — sooner or later.  Repression is not a great strategy.

The second is the carrot:

Provide an incentive.  Incentives work beautifully, until you remove them.  Then the behaviour stops — why would any sane donkey keep on working once the carrot is gone?

The third is the book:

Educate people, tell them all the reasons why they should change their behaviour.  Give them the facts and figures.  Expect them to do the rational thing.  Unfortunately people don’t pay too much attention to books — especially if they are telling them to stop smoking.

The fourth is the crowd:

First find one person to change, then a couple of their friends, then an opinion former or two will pick up on the idea, then somebody in the local pub and then Mrs S from down the road.  Before you know it nearly everybody is following the crowd.  Nobody likes to stand out from it.

Behavioural change isn’t rational

It comes in fits and starts, smoulders, follows connections, then spreads like fire.

If you really want to change behaviour, use the power of the crowd.

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  1. ” Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change; it is the realization that we can.” — from back cover of: “the Happiness Advantage / the Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work.” by: Shawn Achor
    ” Unfortunately people don’t pay too much attention to books..” from 3rd way (above)
    I think many people should pay more attention to books; this has been made all the easier with the invention and proliferation of e-books… which can be read on tablets and even cell phones.

    re: the 4th is the crowd…
    Yes, in fact, I have no problem standing out from certain crowds. e.g. smokers (along with people who have a general disregard for health and fitness)
    b) the ‘crowd’ of people throwing hard earned money into the latest investment fad/scam. – generally learning the hard way that a fool and his money are soon parted.
    c) the sadly growing crowd of addicts (heroin, crystal meth, crack etc.) <— Why would I join this crowd?

    • James Lawther says:

      Thanks for your comment Joseph, it is interesting that the crowd of smokers, investors and addicts is exactly that

      ~ a crowd.

      Even when we know it is wrong it is the crowd that persuades many.

      Nothing like a little peer pressure.


  2. Hi James,
    Great advice. One point on incentives….one of the things about incentives and one that we have learnt very clearly over the last couple of years and are still learning (quite badly, as it happens) is that incentives need to be aligned with what we really want to achieve and we need to think very carefully about what sort of behaviour they could encourage.


  3. Lars Schotel says:

    The common factor in the four ways is that there is someone who wants other behaviour from somebody else. That person handles as stick or a carrot, a book or a crowd. The fifth way is to reveal the ambition of individual people related to work. When you can make that a collective one you have got a powerful means of change.

  4. Hello James,

    My friend I do not find myself in agreement with you. For example, there is way one can cultivate even cause change in behaviour without using any of the four methods you have listed. It is a powerful way and one that is neglected in management theory and therefore practice. What am I talking about?

    When I change the way that I show up in the world (be the change that I wish to see in the world) then I can and often do create a space for change to occur in others and the wider system. Why does this work? It works because we are always in relationship: our way of being (showing up in the world) and that which we do (or do not do), use or do not use, affects all the people we are in relationship with. Put differently, you cannot throw a stone into a pool of water without causing a ripple.

    This is not the only way of cultivating change that you have left out. One of the most profound ways of causing changes in behaviour is to change our stories/explanations. When we replace one story with another we open up new worlds, new worlds.

    All the best

  5. Gill Marsh says:

    It’s a bit more complex than that in my experience. It’s usually a blend of all of those plus some other things like making sure that people have the skills, that you (and other leaders) are role modelling the behaviour, that you are prepared to coach where appropriate – often behaviour is unconscious. And of course the balance of the blend will be different for each individual – we all respond differently.

    There’s also the question of culture. Some cultures have a compliance mindset – Germany for example, so the blend is also affected by the culture you are operating in.

    All of this makes for a very rich tapestry when you are doing a global change programme and why every leader should be a change manager – otherwise they are simply a supervisor. Change management is a bit like accountancy or IT every leader should have those basic skills to do their budget, interpret their results and know what levers to pull for example – but when they need to do the tricky stuff that’s when the experts should support them. Too many people who say they are change managers are actually project managers – good change managers in my experience are rarely red hot project managers as they focus on the “soft” stuff and recognise that ticking a box on a project plan which tends to be the approach adopted for many organisations – and is a major contributor to why change is always suboptimal

    • James Lawther says:

      Thanks Gill, I suppose the question is how do you find a good change manager?

      • Lesley Davis says:

        There are Change Management qualifications James (e.g Change Management Practitioner), however a qualification does not necessarily guarantee that the person will be a good Change Manager in the same way that Prince 2, does not necessarily guarantee a good project manager. A good change manager will have a combination of relevant change experience, project management skills, soft skills and often a good dose of common sense!

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