Best Behaviour – the value of understanding leadership behaviours

Author: PMI

Best Behaviour by Mick Lyons
The value of understanding leadership behaviours for organisational transformation.


Dealing with people can be problematic. Human behaviour is a complex, multi-layered thing and with complexity comes challenges. But as long as companies require people to get the work done, there’s no way around the fact that they are the conduits of organisational transformation. That means a key area of expertise, for any manager, should be human behaviour and its vital influence on the organisation – even more than their technical knowledge.

Research suggests that 95% of projects that fail, do so because of the social and emotional aspects of the problem (see, for instance, Making Your Work Work, Gillett 2014), which are closely tied to behaviour. If we accept this statistic then we must also accept that almost everything achieved in business is dependent on behaviour. So, for a company to successfully change things such as quality, increasing throughput, or reducing waste, its people must change their behaviour.

To achieve an in-depth, lasting, improvement in the way a business is operated, a systemic approach must be adopted incorporating a deep understanding of behavioural dynamics and organisational social politics. This requires leaders to understand what drives the behaviours of their people. More importantly, they must be aware how behavioural drivers influence themselves just as much as everyone else. From understanding, comes the ability to inspire and encourage positive behaviours.

A well-designed programme will address these issues specifically and in doing so considerably increase not only the likelihood of successful completion of the programme but, more importantly, the likelihood of successfully embedding the transformational outcomes within the organisation.


Consequences drive behaviours


Consequences drive behaviours, or, to put it another way, an individual does something because of what happens as a result. This may seem obvious on reading, but is, in fact, a statement that is poorly understood in practice. This is why workplace posters and notices telling people to watch out for quality, or wear safety equipment, for example, have a limited effect – or often no effect at all. They are weak antecedents that do not strongly influence behaviour.

Understanding that it is consequences that drive behaviours is hugely significant in organisational transformation. To introduce lasting change in the behaviours of individuals, and by extension the workforce, a leader must personally demonstrate, reinforce and congratulate the change in behaviour when it occurs otherwise their people will not feel the positive consequence of changing.

For example, a company wants to become more data-driven in its decision-making. They introduce a new process to select suppliers using performance data. The process is designed, tested, studied and adopted. In the first month of running the process, the procurement manager overrules the selection of a supplier because ‘he has a bad feeling about them’. By doing this, he demonstrates to his team that the data-driven process doesn’t really need to be followed and thus they revert back to their old behaviour and ways of working.

Sound familiar?

Providing the correct communications and approach to successfully align staff behind organisational transformation requires careful planning as the consequences or outcomes, from a transformational programme can appear negative to individuals in the short term (due to changes in roles and established work practices) and only positive in hindsight.

As the long term consequences are typically significantly weaker behavioural drivers than immediate consequences, this is a key factor that must be addressed in the transformation equation. As an aside this is a key reason people don’t give up smoking. The positive, immediate gratification from nicotine outweighs the much larger future, uncertain consequence of smoking related illness. Logic has nothing to do with it!

Leadership behaviours for long-term change


Many leaders and managers have achieved their position on the basis of being effective in solving the day-to-day problems that face a business. It’s important to understand that this skillset, although undeniably valuable, is not the same skill set required for leading or managing a long-term, systemic transformation in an organisation.

Looking at it from a behavioural perspective, the consequences attached to a manager solving a burning issue are typically positive, immediate and certain (using terminology from Aubrey Daniels’ excellent book Bringing Out the Best in People), i.e. praise from superiors, their own manager and peers, a ‘good buzz’ and possibly even financial reward. These consequences, when repeated, act to reinforce a set of behavioural traits associated with quick wins rather than strategic approaches to problem-solving.

Success in leading a transformational programme, although certainly requiring the ability to problem solve, requires a skill set that is somewhat broader – the ability to take a strategic viewpoint, patience, resilience, to influence across silos and a systemic approach.

For a leadership team to be successful as the sponsor of an organisational transformation programme, the team must be able to assess whether they are truly capable of adopting, and are aligned with, a long-term strategic view or are dominated by the need for short-term success. If the latter is the case, team behaviours must be modified, sometimes by changing the team composition – otherwise failure is certain.

Successful change leaders:


  • Are as proficient at understanding the drivers of human behaviours as they are the technical aspects of their role. They also understand their own psychology and work to be a paragon of the behaviours they want others to adopt.
  • Understand that consequences drive behaviours, so personally demonstrate, reinforce and congratulate the change in behaviour when it occurs (otherwise their people will not feel the positive consequence of changing)
  • Applaud behaviours that work towards the long-term strategic change over the quick fix, daily problem solving.



This article first appeared in the December edition of Quality World – the monthly magazine of the CQI (Chartered Quality Institute).