Can we change workplace behaviour in just 21 days?

Encouraging employees to adapt their behaviour so they can progress professionally is a sensitive, challenging task. Dan Hughes from emotional intelligence specialist JCA Global looks at how managers can support changes.

Understanding exactly what you need to improve on at work, and how you can embed and sustain these improvements is a real challenge. Often, feedback from others can be general and lack specifics in terms of the exact behaviour that needs developing. Furthermore, even when people understand rationally how they need to change, all too often they find themselves slipping back into their old habits.

Emotional Intelligence provides a route map for sustainable behavioural change. Emotional Intelligence is about how you learn to manage your thoughts, feelings and behaviour to be both personally and interpersonally effective. This is achieved through the habitual practice of ‘thinking about feeling’ and ‘feeling about thinking’ to guide your behaviour.

Let’s take an example. Julie was in the running to be promoted to a more senior position in her organisation. She was a great asset with clients and an excellent sales person who regularly exceeded targets. However, a 360° feedback process identified that she often put people’s backs up by being domineering and not listening properly to her colleague’s views. The consensus was that she just needed to ‘tone it down’ internally before she could be trusted in a more senior role.

Until this 360° feedback, Julie wasn’t aware she had this impact on others. No-one had mentioned it to her directly. She was committed to demonstrating her suitability for promotion and that she could improve her behaviour. But how could she transform this commitment into a sustainable improvement in performance?

After identifying what behaviour needs to change, the next step is to learn to be more aware in the present about how we feel, and also how others appear to be feeling. This involves consciously noticing and labelling emotions that you are experiencing and others are displaying. Doing this will provide you with insight into the links between your feelings and your behaviours, and how they are impacting on others.

While increased awareness is valuable, in our experience emotionally intelligent behaviour is determined largely by the underlying attitudes we hold about ourselves and other people. Our responses and reactions are filtered through our attitudes, which then shape our thoughts and feelings and in turn drive our behaviour. Unpicking these attitudes is therefore critical.

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Insights into change

Back to Julie. She monitored her feelings closely and noticed that she tended to become more aggressive in meetings when she felt stressed or anxious. She also recognised that when she was feeling particularly energised and enthusiastic, she would get carried away, telling people what to do, and not listening to their suggestions.

In her case she recognised that her underlying attitudes were formed by her upbringing. She was the youngest in her family of six and often had to compete for attention and to keep up with the activities and interests of her older siblings. She has been used to fighting for her voice to be heard. This behaviour stayed with her and, like many of us, Julie was unaware of how this impacted on her colleagues on a day to day basis.

Julie also became aware that when she was seen as being aggressive, she triggered feelings of anxiety, hostility and resentment in others. Creating these feelings within certain colleagues meant that she found it difficult to engage, collaborate or inspire them and this was holding back her work relationships.

To turn insights like Julie’s into real behavioural change, you need to embed new, positive habits. We use an exercise called the 21-day Habit Change to start this process of building a new habit through consistent, repeated daily practice. Individuals are guided through a series of reflective questions that lead them to identify a single, specific behaviour they will commit to doing every day for 21 days. This is a great way to start making a change, although in practice embedding a habit fully can vary greatly in the time it takes. Phillippa Lally and colleagues explored habit formation in a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Their research found that forming a new habit varies depending on the behaviour, the person and the circumstances. It took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days of repeated practice for people to form a new habit, with a median of 66 days.

This highlights Julie’s needs to be realistic about what can be achieved and by when. Julie chose to make a specific commitment, to pause deliberately before speaking in any meetings and allow others to talk first, which she would practice over 21 days.

She’s doing all the right things. She took the time to identify the underlying attitudes and feelings that contributed to her behaviour. She became more consciously aware of how she was feeling and the emotional state of others. Building on this, she identified one specific behaviour to work on and committed to practicing this repeatedly to embed a new habit.

There are lots of lessons to be learnt from Julie. Behaviour change is difficult to do independently. Organisations need to support their people to understand what they need to improve and help them develop new habits. To achieve lasting change, individuals need to address the core attitudes that underpin their behaviours and develop their emotional awareness. It’s certainly not easy but it is incredibly worthwhile.


Dan Hughes

About Dan Hughes

Dan Hughes is product director at JCA Global

One Response to Can we change workplace behaviour in just 21 days?

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    Bil Davies 5 Mar 2018 at 11:42 am #

    Nice article Dan. I guess 21 days is a minimum and at least gives a basis to check if some change is beginning to take shape?

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