Why Can’t My Employees Change the Little Things?

CHANGE MATTERS[su_dropcap style=”flat”]A[/su_dropcap] FEW WEEKS AGO I wrote a post focusing on why our employees don’t change when we want them to. (If you missed it, here’s the link: Why Won’t My Employees Change?.  Many of you commented on this topic – clearly I hit a hot button. The same question kept coming up. Why is it so hard to get my employees to change the ‘little’ things – keeping their work space tidy, making sure lab notebooks are up to date and coherent, arriving to work on time, using their inside voice, keeping common spaces clean? I could go on, and I’m sure you could too.

The first thing I’ll say is that as in life, we need to pick our battles. Not because we’re going to let anything go forever, but because you can’t fix everything at once. So my first thought is – prioritize. I say this quite often and am always surprised that it isn’t always obvious. I understand, these ‘little’ things are annoying and that annoyance builds on itself until it becomes unbearable. When you are prioritizing, I would tackle the things that can affect both individual and company performance first. Like making sure lab notebooks are up to date and coherent and making sure company information is filed in a timely manner. I once worked in a manufacturing plant that basically had the FDA living in their location for months because the inspectors found an inaccuracy on one page of a record they had asked to see. You know what will affect your business – go after those things first.

A 2015 article in Harvard Business Review entitled 7 Things Leaders Do to Help People Change by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman recommend NOT doing the following when asking people to change: Nag and be too nice. Their research shows that neither is overly affective. (It’s a good article, although more relevant to organizational change).  I would agree with the nagging piece. When you nag you basically sound like Charlie Brown’s mother – your employee hears your voice but only hears ‘wa wa wa wa wa’. And as for being too nice, I think they mean that you can’t count on having a great relationship with your employee to be the thing that gets them to change. I think nice is better than mean but I agree that it won’t necessarily motivate your employee to change. Because in order for the change to be sustainable they have to change for themselves, not for you.

So how can you motivate an individual to change in a way that is sustainable? I’m so glad you asked.

changeMotivation to Change

There are three basic elements that must be present in order for an individual to change: they need to have an emotional connection to what you are asking them to change, they need to recognize that they need to change and they need to believe that they can, in the end, effect the change you are requesting.

Feelings: Motivation to change starts with having some feelings about what you want to change. Studies show that without emotions we cannot act. Do my feelings, divided by perceived effort, equal at least 1? If the perceived effort is greater than the emotions I feel and the equation is less than one, I will not act. In other words, if your employee thinks that the effort it will take to keep an accurate lab notebook or proofread their work is greater than the emotions attached to doing those tasks then they won’t change.

In 1965, Dr. Howard Leventhal and associates conducted a study in which researchers tried to get students to go for a tetanus shot. They put out a flier announcing that tetanus shots were available. At first there was no reaction. So they increased the emotional component: They put out flyers that announced the shots AND showed students pictures of people who hadn’t had a tetanus shot and what had happened to them. Some students were motivated to take action, but most did not. Then researchers demonstrated the reduced effort it would take to get the shot – on one flyer they showed the location of the clinic, the hours of operation and even the phone number. Only then did they get a large response. By lowering the perceived effort required to get the shot, the researchers finally got students sufficiently motivated to take action.

The bottom line is this: If your employee doesn’t have positive emotions around their jobs, they may not ever find the energy to change. I’m not saying you are responsible for making them happy but you are responsible for creating an environment that encourages them to bring their best self to work. They have to choose to be a partner in that. If you are doing your part and they fail to do theirs then maybe it would be better for both of you if you parted ways. In the lab notebook example they might actually hate that part of their job and those negative emotions might always trump the perceived effort it will take to do it, as you require. Or maybe they hate it because they have terrible handwriting and allowing them to create one online might be just the key.

Recognizing the Need: The second component of motivation to change is recognizing the need to change. This only happens when we take responsibility for our actions, rather than blaming others. For example, if the attitude within the workplace is “I can’t keep my workspace tidy because there isn’t any place to put things and no one seems to care about that,” then it’s hard to drive change because no one takes responsibility beyond the initial task “keep my workspace tidy”. On the other hand, if the attitude within the organization encourages a more positive approach – “If I need a space to store things, it’s my responsibility to request the space and my supervisor will work with me to find a solution” – then it’s easier to recognize the need to change.

Sometimes individuals don’t see the need to change because they don’t have the same understanding and acceptance as you do about what is important. Make sure your employee knows up front the job requirements that will impact pay and longevity. Make sure they understand why. And also make sure they actively believe that what you are talking about is important. In my manufacturing plant example, the company chose to carry over employees from the previous company that had occupied the site. The challenge was that these individuals went from making lawn furniture to making drugs. At the beginning they had no idea of the importance of accuracy. Then they began to understand. But it took a long time to get them to translate their surface understanding into an actual belief that drove their behavior.

If your employee isn’t doing something that you think is obvious given the type of business you are in, make sure they don’t just surface understand. Make sure the importance becomes part of their belief system. You won’t be able to affect change without it.

And the last key to motivating an individual to change is:

Believing It’s Possible: The third component of motivation to change is believing change is possible. Whether I do or don’t, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I have a growth mindset – if I think that we (the organization and I) can grow, change and adapt – then it will happen. At the same time, if I feel that it’s not possible, it won’t happen. A growth mindset can be taught. Believing it’s possible can’t. In my previous post on this topic I also mentioned that sometimes people don’t know how to do something, so keep that in mind as well. And please don’t get caught up in the ‘they are senior enough they should know how to do this’ thought pattern. Don’t use the ‘S’ word – should. Whenever I hear that word it is a big red flag for me, and I hope it is for you too. It usually means there is an unrealistic expectation of one kind or another at play.

So how do you know if your employee thinks that change is possible? I’d start by asking if they know how to do what you are asking first. If they say they do, then ask them if they think they can change. Sometimes the answer might surprise you. If they say ‘No’ to that question, ask why and get to the heart of the matter. And if they say ‘Yes’ then ask them what is holding them back. In either case, ask the question and then sit back and listen. Just listen.

In conclusion, I know that getting employees to change seems more complicated than it is worth sometimes. But if you truly want to effect change and it is a requirement for your business (and your sanity), then it is worth the time and effort it takes. And it will get easier, and that’s where your own changes come into play. The same equation of perceived effort divided by the emotional connection you have to the task applies.

One last piece of advice. Never introduce more than one or two behavioral changes at a time. As I said at the beginning, prioritization is key but so is avoiding overload. Just as creating a list of 15 New Year’s Resolutions can almost certainly result in failure, so too can introducing too many behavioral changes at once. Sustained behavioral change really does prove that “slow and steady wins the race”.


Beth Banks Cohn
Beth Banks Cohn
BETH is dedicated to helping individuals and companies implement business changes that actually work. Beth believes in the ripple effect – that change handled well benefits everyone in an organization, over and over again. As a recognized expert in change as well as corporate culture, Beth consults domestically and internationally with a wide range of disciplines and businesses. Beth is the author of two books: ChangeSmart™: Implementing Change Without Lowering your Bottom Line and Taking the Leap: Managing Your Career in Turbulent Times…and Beyond (with Roz Usheroff).

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