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5 Steps for Leaders Struggling to Lead Positive Change

Is your organization infected with unhealthy behaviors such as shifting blame, turfism or gossiping? If so, you aren’t alone. These are among the most common and costly infections to take root in organizations. A recent study of 2,308 people which measured the frequency, costs and cures for these common behavioral infections, points to five steps that will help leaders advance positive change.

Our research shows nearly three out of four organizations are infected with one or more of the costly behaviors of gossiping, shifting blame and turfism. According to the study, infected organizations experience significantly worse results across the board—with decreased productivity, quality, safety, customer satisfaction, employee morale and higher turnover. For example, the data reveals that organizations suffering from one or more of the most common infections are nearly twice as likely to experience quality problems. Here is how one respondent described it:

“Two departments in my company are responsible for quality for the entire organization. Each created their own way of being compliant, as a way of protecting their silo. As a result, employees have a hard time knowing which process to follow, and quality has actually worsened.”

Unfortunately, these common and costly infections are also highly resistant to change. Only six percent of the leaders surveyed said they’d been able to root out these behavioral problems. In fact, 94 percent of respondents reported that these bad behaviors had persisted for a year or longer, and a third reported the problem had persisted for more than 10 years.

The positive news is that solutions are possible. The six percent who succeeded used the same approach—they targeted the problem with multiple strategies aimed at personal, social and environmental influences. The leaders who failed relied on a single strategy, such as incentives or verbal persuasion. The key to success was combining multiple sources of influence into a potent solution.

Interestingly, the amount of time leaders spent on the issue had little impact on their success; the correlation was barely significant. But how they spent their time, including the number of sources of influence they applied, had a huge impact.

Here are a few tips to help you enlist multiple sources of influence in leading positive change in your own organization.

  1. Focus on behavior. Leaders who simply repeat vague values drive little change. Those who identify concrete and clear behaviors they hope people will enact are far more effective influencers. For example, five million people were spared from AIDS in Thailand when one leader moved beyond vague awareness campaigns and focused on 100 percent condom use in the sex trade.
  2. Connect to values. Use potent stories and direct experiences to make change a moral and human issue. New York restaurateur Danny Meyer helps employees connect to the value of “hospitality” rather than just “customer service” by repeatedly sharing powerful stories of meaningful guest experiences their colleagues create.
  3. Invest in skills. Most leaders see influence as a matter of motivation. Influencers invest more in building ability than simply motivating the masses. For example, healthcare CEO Matt Van Vranken influenced massive increases in hand hygiene habits in his nearly 20,000-employee hospital system by helping employees develop skills for speaking up when they saw a colleague violate hygiene standards.
  4. Leverage peer pressure. Social influence is the most potent force for change. Research shows that if people believe bad behavior is normal they are far more likely to follow suit. A Ghanaian gold mine reduced vehicle accidents by engaging respected drivers in training other drivers in proper safety practices. Peers were far more effective at gaining compliance than either staff professionals or senior leaders had ever been.
  5. Change the environment. Use tools, technology, information and surroundings to make people conscious of the need to change and enabled to make better choices. For example, software entrepreneur Rich Sheridan cut employees’ time fixing errors from 40 percent of working time to no time at all by putting code writers in teams of two, sharing one computer. This environmental change significantly increased employee productivity and morale.

The most important takeaway from this research is to combine these strategies together. Cherry picking one or two won’t work. When it comes to resistant strains of behavioral infections, the cure requires multiple sources of influence.

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David Maxfield is vice president of research at VitalSmarts, which specializes in corporate training and organizational performance, and has been ranked by Inc. magazine as one of the fastest-growing companies in America for eight consecutive years. He is a co-author of Influencer, a New York Times best seller. For related information from Maxfield’s co-authors, visit the Crucial Skills blog at





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