How to use behavioural psychology to develop outstanding leaders

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By Kim Grist

Executing any strategy that requires a lasting change in human behaviour is one of the toughest challenges leaders will ever face. For people to change their behaviour they need to perceive it is of value to them: the old chestnut, “what’s in it for me?”

In a work setting, one of the single biggest influences on whether people change their behaviour is the actions, support and direction of their leaders. So with this challenge in mind, proven theories of reinforcement and psychology give us some clear insights into why leadership behaviour is the key to people performance and successful execution of strategy.

Have a think about what you’re trying to achieve:

  • Do you want to increase overall performance capability of your organisation?
  • Do you want to increase the probability of your organisation achieving financial targets?
  • Do you want to increase the speed of decision making and execution?
  • Do you want to create a culture that is a competitive advantage and aligned to your strategy?

If the answer to these questions is a definitive “yes” then consider this.

Your people aren’t usually the problem. Your leaders are more likely to be where the opportunity exists to make positive changes. Leadership behaviour is the key to shaping and sustaining the behaviours that will drive your strategy, so let’s look at some of the psychological principles of behaviour change to help explain why this is so.

Continuous reinforcement develops new behaviours

Think about it, a leader’s continuous, genuine reinforcement via conversations, feedback, coaching and goal setting is needed when an organisation sets a new strategy in place.

People need to be clear about objectives and roles. Goal setting creates engagement and together with coaching and feedback, leads to consistent higher performance. Strategic goals need to be translated into specific actions and then practised and coached. The challenge is getting leaders to commit to coaching and feedback continuously in the early days of a new strategy.

It’s important to reinforce both effort and results

It’s tough changing the behaviour of lots of people, but if you recognise, coach and give feedback you create momentum, which helps people move in the right direction. Initially the change needs more effort, a bit like trying to push a stalled car but once you get going, the momentum speeds up and you get more change at a faster pace.

Too much focus on numbers alone limits potential and improved performance. Helping your people understand the impact of their behaviours on the results and providing focused behaviour development will give you a much better return on the time you spend than simply talking about the numbers.

It’s much harder to drive forward when you are looking in the rear view mirror. Not everyone will hit the desired numbers quickly so there will be little change unless leaders are willing to commit to becoming coaches that reinforce and recognise effort and results.

Create opportunities for natural reinforcement from the environment to maintain the behaviour

When leaders provide specific coaching and feedback in developing the right behaviours then the ‘environment’ will sustain the behaviour and results. The more people practise the new behaviours and receive a positive response, the more they will be inclined to continue demonstrating the new behaviours.

Natural reinforcers are things like customer responses, compliments, thanks, feeling a sense of satisfaction with applying new skills and achieving better results. They are intrinsic rewards, which individuals get out of doing their best work. Success breeds more success.

So the key is to go hard and often, early with leading change. Get involved, set goals together, commit to coaching and provide feedback and positive reinforcement of the desired behaviours. Your people will grow in self-esteem, competence, commitment and then become more engaged and deliver discretionary effort.

Kim Grist is the founding partner of Grist and a change management consultant. He has been a registered psychologist for over 25 years. Follow Grist on LinkedIn

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