One of the questions I get asked very often by leaders is how to effect behaviour change? Not just for today or tomorrow, but in a way that creates long-term and sustainable change. The answer is: with short-term actions. Indeed, ironically, long-term behaviour change only happens when leaders focus on short-term feedback and consequences. And just as paradoxically, the opposite is not true: short-term behaviour rarely changes as a result of long-term outcomes.
What does it take to cause behaviour change in cigarette smokers?
Consider cigarette smoking. Everyone knows that smoking negatively impacts health in the long-term, significantly increasing the likelihood of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, emphysema and pulmonary difficulties, and even the big C – cancer. Yet many people don’t actually pay heed to this information until it’s too late. In other words, the long-term outcomes don’t usually deter the short-term behaviour. But things that happen now – exorbitant taxes on your pack of smokes, a diagnosis of emphysema, a loved one facing terminal lung cancer – are much more likely to impact a person’s long-term actions – to quit smoking forever.
What can leaders learn?
So what could this mean to you, a leader in the workplace trying to motivate your employees to exceptional performance? Promising a promotion in two years to a talented and capable employee is encouraging. But if you really want her to go above-and-beyond on a day-to-day basis, right now, you’ll get much greater success if you recognize her for her work today, even if it is just verbally. You can still give her the promotion in two years, but long-term outcomes do not usually affect short-term behaviour. Your regular positive timely feedback however will have long-term implications on employee satisfaction and retention – she is much more likely to stick around until it’s time for that promotion.
This is just one example of what it takes (and doesn’t) to motivate positive changes in behaviour, but I hope that you can see the implications on a much wider scale. How are you motivating your employees? If you’re focusing on long-term actions to affect short-term outcomes, then you’re probably not having much success. If you truly want to effect long-term sustainable behaviour change, then you need to focus on short-term actions and feedback.
So what are you doing? I’d love to hear if what I’ve said resonates (or not) with you. Have you seen examples of long-term consequences affecting short-term behaviour? Or has your experience with behaviour change been more like what I’ve described? Please comment below.