The ability to facilitate change is a vital skill for all managers, as without change your organisation cannot grow, improve practices and thrive.

When planning and orchestrating any changes at work, it is essential that the proposed change is framed positively and that employees are given the tools and information they need to cope.

Even minor changes to an employee’s role can cause stress. When poorly managed, changes at work can lead to project failures, loss of productivity or a decline in quality of work. Change can evoke irrational fear and expectation of loss in your employees.

An important skill in the employer toolkit is how to address and instigate change in undesirable behaviours among your workforce. Trying to effect behavioural changes in the workplace by bulldozing resistant employees is one of the biggest mistakes a manager can make; it can be as harmful to performance and productivity than taking no action at all.

Your aim should be to help the employee change their behaviour by creating a supportive, inspiring and positive workplace context in which they can do so.

To minimise any adverse effects, employers should manage their employees’ resistance to change before, during and after that change has taken place. Overcoming resistance is about re-framing the change so that employees can engage with it positively. Demanding a change in behaviour from an employee without managing their perception or addressing their concerns is likely to have extremely undesirable results.

How to effect behavioural changes in the workplace

Creating sustainable changes in employee behaviour is never easy. You are not simply making changes to the employee’s role; you are asking them to change themselves. Most people are capable of temporary change, but anybody who has ever cancelled their new gym membership in February or bought cigarettes after a two-week break will tell you that long-term change is difficult to achieve. This is especially true when trying to motivate others to change, which is what managers and employers must do when implementing behavioural changes at work.

Rather than focusing exclusively on what needs changing, think about how change itself takes place. Motivation is the main driving force behind any successful long-term change. To effect behavioural changes in an employee, you must give them the inspiration and desire to change. Unfortunately, the threat of punishment and the promise of reward rarely provide fertile enough soil to grow sustainable, long-term change. 

Telling your employee that they must change their behaviour as their productivity is low or they have a problem with absenteeism will not inspire permanent change, though this is an essential part of the process. If your employee is exhibiting behaviours which may one day lead to disciplinary action being taken against them, you have a legal responsibility to make them fully aware of how their current behaviour falls short of what is expected of them and to make sure they have the support they need to change.

When it comes to behavioural changes in the workplace, effective use of motivation goes beyond just promising the employee a pay rise if they succeed or threatening them with disciplinary action if they fail. Managers should install in the employee a drive to succeed by reminding them of the organisation’s core mission and the vital role they have to play. Make sure the employee understands that they are valued and that you believe in their ability to embrace positive change.

Using positive reinforcement to facilitate changes at work

Positive reinforcement must be the foundation of your strategy when working towards behavioural changes at work. Studies show that reward is a far more powerful motivating force than punishment. While you should provide immediate feedback when the employee displays undesirable behaviour, it is even more important that managers acknowledge and reinforce positive behaviours as they occur. This can be done through verbal praise or by rewarding the employee in a more tangible way, such as an early finish, extended break or a bonus.

How to lead and manage changes at work

If your employee is exhibiting more than one undesirable behaviour, do not be tempted to try and tackle them all at once. Instead, focus on the main behaviour you would like to change. Otherwise, your employee will likely feel disheartened and will be less willing to put in effort. Establishing permanent behavioural change will take time; you must make sure the employee has mastered their new habits concerning one behaviour before giving them something different to focus on. When there are multiple behaviours that need to be addressed, organise them in order of priority and make sure their new positive behaviours have firmly taken root before moving down the list. 

Managing changes in the workplace – behavioural or otherwise – is a fine art. Planning and effective communication are your two greatest weapons. Managers must keep their employee informed and make sure they fully understand what is expected of them, and why. Keep in mind that from your employee’s perspective the only thing worse than change is unexpected change. By the time you come to developing an action plan with your employee in a bid to help them change their behaviour, they should be completely aware that this was going to happen.

It is important that the employee you are working with understands why behavioural changes at work are necessary. They will be far more resistant to your plan to facilitate change if they do not really see why the change must happen at all. From the moment you first raise the behavioural issue with the employee to the moment the issue has been resolved, the manager should keep them ‘in the loop’ and frequently updated with changes or developments. Starting the process, it can also be useful to ask the employee what they think would best help them alter their behaviour. You do not necessarily have to take this on board, but it does have the advantage of showing the employee their opinion is respected.

Set clear and attainable goals with your employee, that will allow them to foster and repeat their new positive behaviours. Going forward, keep channels of communication open with your employee and feedback to them regularly. If the employee doubts themselves and hears nothing from their manager, that doubt may turn into the belief that they are not doing a good job, dejection and failure. Coaching is one of the best tools available to managers and employers looking to facilitate change in the workplace. This collaborative and continuous process between employee and manager allows the manager to shape and guide the employee’s behaviour through positive reinforcement and frequent feedback. In addition to steering employees away from behaviours that are hindering their performance, coaching can be used to develop good behaviours and skills that will enable them to succeed in the workplace. 

How to help employees manage and live change

Positive and long-term behavioural change is only possible in a positive and motivational workplace context. To help employees manage and embrace their behavioural changes at work, managers should:

An employee’s relationship with their manager is arguably the most influential aspect of their work environment. Therefore, it is impossible to create a positive context for employee behavioural changes in the workplace, without managers actively controlling their behaviour too. Unfortunately, managers and other workplace leaders often fall into the trap of treating employees who are underperforming dismissively or with less respect than their high-performing colleagues. When an employee can sense that you do not expect much from them, they are unlikely to perform at their best. Make an employee feel valued and value is what you will get in return.