Stop playing “Whac-a-mole” with behavior change

It’s a fairly typical scenario: An organization is in the midst of a large-scale change. The management invests intensive time and resources to develop protocols and programs to support their new direction. In the beginning, these efforts work; KPIs may even increase. But before long, old behaviors begin to pop up and progress toward the new direction slows down. In this way, driving behavioral change can be like a game of “Whac-a-mole” in an arcade. You implement programs that pound one mole (behavior) into its hole only to find the same mole (behavior) keeps popping up around you.

According to our research, the key to unlocking successful change and to finally stop playing “whac-a-mole” is to uncover the underlying mindsets that are driving the undesirable behaviors, and then shift them in a way that accelerates performance. In a survey of executives, companies that did no work to diagnose mindsets never rated their change programs as “extremely successful,” whereas companies that took the time to uncover and reframe mindsets were four times as likely to rate their change programs as “successful.”

Uncovering mindsets sounds great in theory, but what does it look like in practice? We’ve identified three main steps to diagnosing and transforming mindsets.

  1. Identify helping and hindering behaviors
    The first step in uncovering mindsets actually has nothing to do with mindsets – it is to identify the behaviors that are critical to achieving your aspiration and capturing value.

    When identifying critical behaviors, we recommend first determining what the desirable behavior looks like – where you want to go. From there, it’s time to think about the actual behaviors – where you are today. A great question to ask yourself is, “If I were following an employee around for a day, what behaviors would I see?”

    For example, a bank wants to deliver “One Firm” to its clients, and that critical behavior was identified as cross-selling products. This is a good start.
  2. Uncover the underlying mindset drivers
    Once the most critical behaviors are identified, the next step is to dive deep into understanding the underlying mindsets driving those behaviors. This requires using an assortment of techniques to understand what are the beliefs of smart, hard-working and well-intentioned employees that drives their behaviors. The size of your organization may dictate the techniques you use (i.e. deep structure interviews for smaller populations, scalable assessments for large companies), but it’s important to touch base with as many employees and as representative of a group as possible. We recommend a combination of employees across levels (from front-line to leaders) and departments for a business unit-level change or business units for an enterprise-wide change.

    It’s important not to confuse an external force with a mindset. For example, a misalignment of incentive systems or a lack of role modeling is not a mindset. You’ll know when you’ve reached a mindset when it evokes a “that’s so us!” response, and it makes sense why employees are acting the way they are.

    The bank realized that 90% of its employees were focusing their efforts based on the underlying mindset around what they thought their job was; in this case, it was to give the customers what they were asking for – which is a reasonable belief.
  3. Reframe root-cause mindsets
    Now that the mindsets have been uncovered, the final step is to reframe them in a way that unlocks performance. While we’ll admit that there is a bit of an art to reframing, the intention here is to create a greater shift in worldview that causes people to say, “We’ve never thought about it like that before, and if we had, we would do things differently.”

    For the bank, what if employees believed that their job was to help customers fully understand their needs rather than just giving them what they ask for?  No doubt they would be more apt to showcase more of the bank’s offerings and subsequently cross-sell products.

Now that you’ve identified the behaviors critical to achieving your aspiration, and uncovered and reframed the underlying mindsets, you have finally beat the “whac-a-mole” game and are well on your way to unlocking performance in your organization!

The authors wish to thank Gila Tolub, Marie-Anne Bazerghi and Martin Kramer for the practical insights they provided for this post.

Learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice