Can we change workplace behaviour in just 21 days?

Encouraging employees to adapt their behaviour so they can progress professionally is a sensitive, challenging task. Dan Hughes from emotional intelligence specialist JCA Global looks at how managers can support changes.

"If you want to get promoted, you need to change your behaviour." This is a common theme of employee appraisals.

The manager should then back up their observation with reasons and evidence. They should seek agreement during the appraisal about the changes that need to be made.

Unfortunately, that's where the conversation is usually left. There's often little guidance or support for the employee about how to change their behaviour.

So while people might rationally know how they should behave, it can be difficult for them to emotionally change - and for that change to be sustainable.

Building emotional intelligence

Let's take an example. A 360° appraisal process identified that Julie was in the running to be promoted.

However, she would often put people's backs up by being domineering and failing to listen to her colleagues and peers. Nonetheless, she was a great asset with clients and an excellent sales person for the company.

Julie wasn't aware of how others within the company perceived her but seeing that a promotion was in the offing, she wanted to change. So began the process of Julie becoming self-aware and also aware of others - what we term our emotional intelligence.

There are three principles that underpin how we engage and interact with others.

1. Attitude. Personal performance and effective relationships with others are dependent on someone's state of mind. If they know their own state of mind, they are more likely to interact positively and get better results.

2. Feeling. People need to be fully open with themselves about how they feel, and also with others. This enables mutual understanding and accountable action.

3. Behaviour. This will only change if we understand our attitudes and feelings. Then we have a greater choice over how we behave.

Monitoring feelings

In Julie's case, she recognised that her underlying attitudes were formed by her upbringing. She was the youngest in her family of six and often had to compete for attention and to keep up with the activities and interests of her older siblings. She has been used to fighting for her voice to be heard.

This behaviour stayed with her and, like many of us, Julie was unaware of her colleagues' feelings about her.

The next step was for Julie to monitor her feelings closely. She noticed that when she was feeling stressed, she would become more aggressive in meetings.

She also recognised that when she was energised and feeling particularly enthusiastic she would get carried away, telling people what to do, and not listening to their suggestions.

Central to changing behaviour is accepting responsibility. Julie needs to understand that she is responsible for how she feels and acts. A major factor that inhibits change is failing to be accountable for our own behaviour.

Julie also became aware that when she is seen as aggressive, she triggers feelings of fear, anxiety, hostility and resentment in others.

Creating these feelings within another person means that she found it difficult to engage, collaborate or inspire them and these feelings were damaging her relationships.

Making a difference

Finally, Julie needs to remember that it takes time for a change in behaviour to become a habit - at least 21 days for it to start making a difference. Note that this is to start making a change, not to embed a habit.

It was back in the 1950s that plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz identified that a patient who had an arm or leg amputated would begin to adjust in 21 days.

This led to further research by Maltz into the length of time it takes to start to change a habit. Phillippa Lally further tested this finding in a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Her research found that forming a new habit varies depending on the behaviour, the person and the circumstances.

It could take anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit. So Julie needs to be realistic about what can be achieved and by when.

She's doing all the right things. She took the time to identify the underlying attitudes and feelings that contributed to her behaviour.

She was able to tone down her aggressiveness by understanding how she was feeling and becoming more aware of the emotional state of others.

Supporting change

There are lots of lessons to be learnt from Julie. Behaviour change is difficult to do independently. We need to support our people to start to make changes.

We need to help them identify their attitudes. We need to encourage them to be open about their feelings. And we need to recognise the steps people take to change behaviour. It's certainly not easy but it is incredibly worthwhile.

Because we all like happy endings, I'll wrap up by saying Julie got her promotion with the full endorsement and support of her peers and colleagues.