The sure way to change behavior

Published in NRC on 27 November 2018

The sure way to change behavior

It makes no difference whether you’re a policymaker battling obesity, or a manager trying to raise employee satisfaction – for many of our plans, changes in behavior need to be made before you see any results. 

Perhaps that’s why behavior change is such a popular topic. A topic that trainers and counsellors, for example, claim to know everything about.

Fortunately, a lot of serious research has also been conducted in this area and there are scientists who can explain it in simple language. My favorite recent book about this is The behaviour change wheel by Susan Michie, Lou Atkins and Robert West, three British psychologists. The Dutch translation, De cirkel van gedragsverandering, is also available.

I’d love to tell you everything I’ve learned from them but I’ll limit myself today to just one practical piece of advice.

If you want to achieve a goal, either in your professional or personal life, with a group or on your own, there will always be several types of behavior that can help you. Let me give a simple example: if you want to lose weight, you can change your eating patterns, cook differently, or change your grocery shopping habits. But you could also do more physical exercise. The trick is to choose the behavior that is not only effective, but also do-able.

How do you do that, according to Michie, Atkins and West? Well, you first make a list of possible behaviors. Preferably based on relevant experience or research. Then you assess these possible behaviors according to the following four criteria:

1) Impact on your goal
How big is the chance that this behavior will actually bring you closer to your goals? Will listening empathetically to your colleagues make them more satisfied about their work? Or is it more effective in your organisation to explain what you expect of everyone first? Once you’ve done that, make an estimate of the impact of each alternative behavior.

2) Ease of change
Will you actually apply the desired behavior? Ask yourself if the new behaviour is appropriate to your skills. Does it fit within the environment you’re functioning in? And are the people motivated to do it? In other words: how implementable is this behavior change? For each alternative, note this down.

3) Positive side effects
What influence do the various possible changes in behavior have on other behavior? Your own behavior. Or the behavior of other people. For example, is your behavior change as manager also a positive example for the people around you? For each possible behavior change, make an estimate of these ‘secondary’ effects.

4) Measurability
If you want to monitor progress during a process of change, focus on behaviors you can easily observe, and preferably measure. Estimate the measurability for each behavior change.

So: make that list of possible options, assess them as accurately as possible based on these criteria, and choose the most promising behavior change.

It’s essential here that you impose restrictions on yourself. Less is better, say Michie, Atkins and West. You’re better off trying to change one or two behaviors that rate high on your checklist, than focusing on a multitude of things at once.

Because behavior change is difficult, and if you bite off more than you can chew, you will just be setting yourself up for failure right from the start.

Ben Tiggelaar
(published as a column in NRC Handelsblad).