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July 21, 2015

Want to change your employees' behavior? Follow these six steps

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This story was updated on May 30, 2018.

Successfully changing an employee's behavior is one sign of a great leader, experts write in Harvard Business Review.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, development consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman offer six ways to spur behavior change at your organization based on feedback from nearly 3,000 direct reports and almost 600 leaders.

1. Use the 'Pull' approach to inspire employees: The researchers found that managers who micromanaged their direct reports were less likely to drive change and more likely to irk their employees. And they found that simply being nice to employees ultimately had no independent effect on spurring change. However, managers who worked with their employees to set a goal and construct a plan to reach that outcome were more likely to make an emotional connection with their employees and help them see the connection between behavior modification and the desired goal.

2. Recognize issues: Although there is a time and place for being an effective problem solver, Zenger and Folkman contend that the best leaders will proactively notice problems, work to change their root causes, and anticipate potential difficulties of doing so in advance.

3. Make sure the team has one clear goal: If an employee and his or her manager do not have their sights set on the same overall team goal, it will be nearly impossible to have a productive conversation about changing behavior, the authors write.

4. Go against the grain: For some leaders, having a conversation about behavior change with a difficult employee might require the leader to "find ways to maneuver around old practices and policies" and to rethink or challenge rules that have been in place for a long time. In addition, being a conscientious leader requires courage and a leader's "willingness to live in discomfort" to see change through to the desired end.

5. Prioritize change: Zenger and Folkman note that change initiatives are often mistakenly put on the backburner in favor of day-to-day work. However, successfully changing employee behavior requires leaders to "clear away the competing priorities," "shine a spotlight on this one change effort ... track its progress carefully, and encourage others," they write.

6. Build trust in your judgment: Good leaders recognize that effective change requires soliciting input from others who have different perspectives on a situation. By using others' advice as a foundation, leaders are better able to build trust in the decisions they make (Zenger/Folkman, Harvard Business Review, 7/20).

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