Changing People's Habits

Encouraging and Sustaining New Behaviors

Changing People's Habits - Encouraging and Sustaining New Behaviors

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How can you get a leopard to change its spots?

You've just come back from a course about managing meetings, full of enthusiasm for changing the way that you work. You're going to turn up to meetings on time, every time. And when you're in the chair, you'll start promptly, even if everyone else isn't there yet.

However, after a couple of weeks, it's clear that this isn't really working. Other meetings overrun, and whilst you endeavor to get to yours on time, your colleagues don't seem to be making any effort.

With key people missing, you can't make any progress, and you find yourself wasting time just hanging around. Frustrated, you gradually return to your old way of doing things.

This is a very common story. Even when you're enthusiastic about changing your own habits and behaviors, it is not always easy to do so. And encouraging others to change their habits can be even harder! How people behave at work is not just down to their personality and particular skills. There are numerous contributory factors, including organizational structure and processes, and the overall business culture.

Creating Sustainable Behavior Change

In many cases, if you want to create sustainable behavior change, it's not enough just to run a series of training workshops. Chances are that you'll need to change the way your business operates, as well. If you work through the two stages below, your program will be much more likely to succeed.

Stage 1: Ensure That the Case for Change Is Compelling

You're unlikely to succeed in the tricky business of changing people's habits if the people you're asking to change don't think it is worthwhile. As such, the first thing you need to do is make sure that your arguments for change are compelling.

Above all, you need to have a robust business case. This should go beyond simply detailing how the expected benefits will exceed the time and money that it will take. It must also show that there's enough spare "organizational focus" available right now to make it work. There's a limit to the number of "new" things that any organization can concentrate on at one time, and taking too much on will inevitably have a negative impact on the delivery of some of your company's initiatives.

You must think through the impact that the desired new behavior will have on:

  • Costs.
  • Revenue.
  • The quality of the product, service, or customer experience.
  • The productivity of staff, machines, or other assets.
  • The time taken to complete processes.
  • The amount or extent of reworking or restructuring required.
  • Customer satisfaction levels.
  • The speed, effectiveness and quality of decision-making.

Being able to demonstrate likely benefits in these areas will help you to overcome resistance to your plans from those who need to change.

Now, build all of this information into a stakeholder communication plan.


Even if you don't have a compelling case for change, it may still be worth trying. Look for ways that you can tackle the issue that don't demand a dedicated project, with all of the cost, visibility and drama associated with this. For example, you may want to adopt a new behavior with your team. By showcasing it, others may then adopt it too.

Stage 2: Create the Environment for Behavior Change

Next, you must develop an understanding of what will drive and reinforce the behavior you want to encourage. The questions given below will help you to start thinking about this, but there may be other areas specific to your organization that you should investigate as well.

Record your answers on a fishbone diagram.


  • How will the organizational structure support or encourage your new behaviors?
  • What support will people require to develop the skills, understanding and knowledge needed to behave in the "new way"?
  • What will be the most effective way for this support to be delivered? For example, should you deliver this through training courses, workshops, or peer/boss mentoring?

Key senior people

  • How do the values of senior managers get reflected in the way that the organization works? Will this reinforce or work against the new behaviors you want?
  • How do these people reward positive behaviors and discourage unwanted ones in their teams?
  • Are there any existing people who are positive role models, that you could get other people to follow?
  • Could these senior people support you and become effective advocates, agents or sponsors of change? (See our article on change management for an understanding of these essential implementation roles.)


  • How has the business evolved? Have some behaviors originated from a previous strategy or from a priority of the organization that may now have been abandoned? If so, how can you demonstrate to people that things have moved on?

Processes and systems

  • How will existing processes and systems support the new behavior?


  • What impact does remote working, office layout and location have? Are there any challenges that arise from the organization's locational structure which need to be taken into account in designing your implementation approach?


  • Which technologies do people have access to in the organization? What technological barriers and opportunities are there?

Measures and controls

  • What types of measures are important within the organization, and what kind of controls are in place? How will these support or hinder the way that you want people to behave?

Customers, suppliers and other external stakeholders

  • Do the needs of stakeholders outside your organization have a significant influence on behaviors?

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  • How are individuals and teams recognized and rewarded? To what extent does this vary across the business? And what impact will this have on your change?
  • How important is behavior in considering an individual's overall performance?
  • In what circumstances is poor behavior overlooked?
  • To what extent could existing HR tools within the organization support or hinder the implementation of the new behavior? (These could include performance management processes, competency frameworks, and job sizing or grading systems.)

Organizational culture

  • What is important to the organization as a whole?
  • What "cultural paradigm" does the organization operate within? (See our article on Johnson and Scholes' Cultural Web.)

When you're thinking about changing people's behaviors, think about as many of these questions as possible.


Many existing habits and behaviors are subconscious. People have got so used to doing something in a particular way, that they do it without thinking. Even if you're aware of these things, you might well have no idea how they became habits in the first place. New staff may remark on them, but, before long, chances are they'll be behaving in just the same way!

To change these die-hard habits, you need to make your staff aware of them. Show people why they're no longer appropriate. Then reinforce the new behaviors you want within the organization, until they themselves become habits.

Ensuring Success

When it comes to improving the chances of successfully changing people's behaviors, there are a number of things that are well worth doing:

  • Limit the number of areas that your program needs to address. Your fishbone diagram may indicate a complex set of things that need to happen in order to achieve the desired new behavior. If this is the case, look again at your initial plan, and include only the actions that are really critical to making a difference. You'll have a much better chance of succeeding if you can focus on a few key things that need to change.
  • Recreate your fishbone diagram in a workshop with key change advocates and change agents. This will not only make your preparation more robust, but it will also engage these people early in the program, and strengthen their sense of ownership of the plan.
  • Consider what consequences individuals will experience if their behavior doesn't change. If the new behavior is not reinforced through systems or processes, or if it's not integrated into how performance is measured, it's going to be more difficult to implement successfully. If appropriate, consider monitoring people's progress within your performance management system.
  • Ensure that individuals see the change as compelling. It's not enough for you to see that something needs to be done – others must too. Remember, existing behaviors and habits are likely to be deeply rooted, and are often taken for granted.
  • Respected role models are critical for success. When you introduce a new IT-based system, for example, it‘ll be obvious whether it's working well for your business or not, however changing behavior is less clear cut. People need to see what good behaviors look like in practice.


For more general guidance on how to implement change successfully, and in particular for large-scale or complex change processes, read our articles on Implementing Change and Kotter's Change Model.

And for structured approaches for thinking about the impacts these may have, see our articles on the McKinsey 7 Ss and the Burke-Litwin Change Model.

Key Points

Peoples' habits and behaviors are influenced by a complicated set of factors. Some are driven by the individual's capabilities and experience, and others by elements within the organization where they work. By using the approach in this article, you'll be able to determine the key issues that you need to take into account when implementing a behavioral change program within your organization.