Changing behaviour in others requires that first, we change our own

Transformative thinking and action requires transformative thinking and action, not more of the ‘same old same old’.  This sounds obvious, but as the story below will demonstrate, sometimes ‘old habits die-hard’ and established views and biases are regarded as ‘truths’ rather than views and perspectives, that could and should be re-examined and challenged as organisations, markets and the landscape continues to evolve.

Some months ago, I was asked to co-run a workshop for a group of global senior leaders within a large NGO. The workshop concluded a long strategy process and was intended to embed new ways of working to improve private sector fundraising and engagement.

I love workshops, and my colleagues and I brought a whole range of targeted exercises to deepen the learning of our participants and to activate change. All was going well. It was fun, and we were hitting our goals until the discussion turned to ways to better collaborate with the private sector. This word ‘collaborate’ in association with the private sector triggered an immediate and emotional response in the group that I will not forget. In the end, and all things considered, the workshop went well, and I got a useful reminder about how much words matter particularly where there are cultural connotations that we cannot ignore.

I have since reflected a good deal on this experience and the deeper challenge for this client and others where the commercial sector is viewed with so much suspicion that the very idea of close engagement and partnership is met with scepticism at best, as though the corporate motive - ‘there must be profit in there somewhere’ - is inherently shameful. Profit is not a dirty motive; it’s a necessary and natural one for corporates and not inevitably in direct conflict at all with a motivation to ‘do good’. On the contrary, the profit motive can and increasingly often is in alignment.  It is this belief that underpins much of the work that is done today by consultancies and other partners working at the interface between corporates and non-profits on development and social benefit programmes.

More generally, this example illustrates an important point about the challenge of behaviour change when an organisation seeks to work in new ways. It begs the question how can a non-profit organisation ever embrace the principle of corporate engagement and forge new strong partnerships when their attitude and behaviours exude suspicion in the sector? Organisations and their leaders need to consider ways to challenge their perspective before they can affect the change they seek in their partners or indeed in their beneficiaries or broader society.

With my coaching hat on, I can assert that there is no single truth in any one perspective but some truth in every perspective. Unfortunately, very often, organisations and their leaders fail to see this and continue doggedly with their one-dimensional view.  There are many, many examples of organisations – public, private and not-for-profit - which have paid a high price for their failure to explore wider perspectives.

Behavioural sciences have taught us that common ‘heuristics’ – the mental shortcuts we subconsciously take when forming views and decision-making – further reinforce this tendency to fixate on a single preferred view or course of action.  There is significant evidence that poor judgement and decision making in teams and organisations, is often due to over-optimism in our own and in our group’s ability, reluctance to speak out in divergence from the prevailing view, and we subconsciously seek out information which supports our existing worldview.  These heuristics -  optimism bias, group think and confirmation bias - can all get in the way of good decision making and result in low efficiency, poor deliverables, failures to meet targets and negative public image. Fear of conflict and desire to comply with the group is indeed one of Patrick Lencioni’s ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ as highlighted in his much-vaunted management must-read of the early noughties.

So how can organisations address this challenge? Simply acknowledging that there may be one is a good first step. And the thing about these behavioural biases is that they tend to be introspective in their nature.  When making the same judgements about other people, we do not exhibit the same biases. So appointing someone separate from a project or team to act as ‘Devil’s Advocate’ to challenge groupthink, optimism bias and confirmation bias, can help, and of course, diversity on boards and leadership groups is essential. NGOs for example, need to recruit more talent from the private sector as well as ensuring a good mix of age, gender, ethnicity and other diversity drivers on their teams: many are now doing so.

Team coaching and workshops also play an important role.  Co-Active® Coaching uses creative and dynamic tools and approaches to hunt for, explore and experience different perspectives, then link these back to organisational purpose in a practical way that is both fun and enlightening, and it can lead to transformative realisations and action.

So for organisations – whether NGOs, corporate or other – to successfully drive change, they often need to embrace it first themselves, and this means experiencing it, not just paying lip service to new ways of working or using language as ‘window dressing’.  It can be an uncomfortable process, but it can be also be fun: it is nearly always necessary.

An insight and behaviour change specialist, Alex Oliver is a consultant and an Associate of C&E Advisory, with whom she works on a wide range of client projects.