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For years as leaders and managers we have identified the problem behaviors we see in the workplace and tried to correct them with various “carrot” or “stick” approaches. The carrot approach focused on rewards and recognition to drive behavior change. The stick approach emphasized consequences, predominantly punishment of various sorts (e.g. coaching conversation, first verbal warning, written warning, etc.).

What we have failed to do, I believe, is to identify the belief system at the root of the behavior. For example, let’s say we have an individual who is very resistant to change. We recognize the resistance because the individual acts out in various ways:  being overly negative, triangling with other people, and frowning and displaying irritable behaviors. If we use the “carrot” or “stick” approach, we either look for or emphasize the positives the person is contributing, or have a disciplinary discussion with the individual about the problem behaviors. What we have missed all together is the need to surface the person’s belief system as the driver of the behavior. A person behaving as described above has a certain belief system about the change. The individual might be focused on the losses, threatened by what could be lost in the change but hasn’t happened yet, or struggling with what he/she wasn’t able to get before and now never will because of the change.

So how do we get the belief system up on the surface? It’s a two-part process. Let’s say we approach the person described above and say, “Seems like you’re struggling with the change. What’s going on?” It’s very important to open with a question rather than saying, “Hey, you need to get your game face on with this change.” So, having asked the question — what’s going on? — the individual says, “I can’t believe they’re going to make us all take on more work. It’s just not fair.” The key here is not to focus on what is actually being said, but to look underneath and try to surface the belief system. So we might reply, “Sounds like you believe that if something doesn’t seem fair and you react negatively enough to it, that they will change their minds. Is that what you believe?” At that point the individual will probably say, “Well, no. They probably won’t change their minds.” You can agree and redirect the individual by saying, “So, what’s another option for handling how you feel?”

Belief drives behavior. We can see behavior. But we can’t see beliefs; we only know them when people surface them directly. Otherwise, they are in the background as powerful directors of behavior. Behavior won’t change until we can create a discrepancy in the belief system. (For example:  I’m not going to lose weight until I accept and believe that ice cream after dinner will cause weight gain.) 

Focus this week on surfacing the beliefs that people have with a simple question:  what’s going on with X? Then, when they respond say, “It sounds like you believe… .” Even if you have identified the wrong belief, the conversation is now focused on beliefs. Once the belief has changed, the behavior change will follow. Just give it time.

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