In a Technology-driven World, Success Still Depends on Behavior


In the early days of the pandemic, simple measures like wearing face masks or observing social distancing were effective at preventing transmission. Yet getting people to comply was another matter.

It seems strange that, for instance, football players wear mouthguards and helmets during intense physical activity, while civilians can’t put up with a mask under ordinary circumstances.

The real challenge was always about changing our behavior.

The promise of behavioral change

For athletes in contact sports, as with workers in dangerous situations, PPE is part of their norms. The average person doesn’t have that context, which made it necessary to launch campaigns targeting change in our social norms.

Efforts to influence human behavior into forms deemed suitable for the collective best interest aren’t new. Throughout history, societies and organizations have depended on behavioral training or conditioning to attain stability and achieve their purposes. Children are educated, soldiers trained, and laymen initiated into spiritual orders.

What’s relatively new, however, is the growing interest in behavioral change. It has been perceived as an alternative, innovative approach in a wide range of disciplines, from psychology and economics to healthcare, computer science, and urban development.

Academics and practitioners alike realize that there’s great potential in being able to nudge people along certain lines of action. Behavioral studies attempt to identify the various factors that affect our decision-making. Behavioral theories can also enable the creation of predictive models that lead to better policy design or targeted interventions.

Best-selling books like The Power of Habit, or Atomic Habits, or Tiny Habits, all offer up variations on the same promise. Individuals can break bad habits and form new ones. Organizations, too, can discourage or encourage specific behaviors.

Do this, and you can turn a complex series of decisions into something as routine as driving a car.  It still takes skill, but the practiced driver doesn’t even think about executing the correct action. And if the process of making the right decisions can be automated, individuals and companies alike will find success.

The critical leadership role

The framework for behavioral change seems simple enough. Where it tends to break down, however, is in the implementation.

People tend to default to certain behavioral patterns. If these patterns are sustained by a large number, they become self-reinforcing norms. Relying on individuals to sustain the motivation to change in the face of this context isn’t a recipe for success.

Leaders need to do more in this regard. But not all organizations emphasize this aspect of the leadership role.

Or if they do, the limited bandwidth available for employee coaching and development is taken up with training for skills or knowledge. Those things matter, but they are also upstream factors. The real chokepoint, when it comes to effectiveness, is how people behave.

Thus, any form of leadership development must integrate an action plan for driving behavioral change on the grassroots level. And your leaders must continuously put this plan to the test, gather feedback, and improve and adjust as they go along.

Developing leaders for the future

Experts proclaim that we’re entering the age of Industry 4.0. This will be a demanding time when cyber-physical systems are ushered in, and AI can take over more tasks than ever.

There’s still a place for humans in this future of work, but people must be willing to change. That behavioral shift can only happen if you have enough leaders exerting their influence to drive it and get a critical mass of people to buy-in.

How do leaders get better at this? Think tank McKinsey distills their advice on better leadership with an eye towards changing behavior into seven principles.

Positivity is emphasized in context and tone. Failure is not something to be feared but embraced as a stimulus to growth. Building on strengths should be an area of focus, as opposed to correcting weaknesses.

Adult learning needs must also be considered. We have to allow people to remain autonomous and self-directed in their learning. But we still need to push them into the ‘stretch’ zone while allowing them to apply lessons directly to their jobs.

As the evidence of the pandemic shows, we already had the technology in place to support remote work and contactless interfaces, but everyone still needed to adjust their behavior.

And the same principle applies to our uncertain future. Success doesn’t depend on what skills, tools, or systems you have but on the actions and behaviors applied towards reaching your goals. Master the art of behavioral change, and you’ll unlock the path to those desired outcomes.


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