One of the interesting observations we have made in many contexts, not just in the workplace, is that others fail to recognise when a person changes their behaviour. More often than not this is a contributing factor if the behaviour change doesn’t stick. Changing your own behaviour is already hard enough, then being confronted with a complete absence of supportive feedback and ignorance about the changes you have made is often quite devastating. So why does this happen and what can you do about it?

The reason that others fail to recognise that you have changed your behaviour is down to the combination of self-serving bias and confirmation bias, the ‘evil twins’ of self-deception. If you follow our blog these two may sound familiar by now, but in a nutshell, self-serving bias leads us to believe that all good things happen to us because we made them happen and all bad things are other people’s fault. Confirmation bias means we see what we want to see and what we believe to be true, ignoring all contradictory evidence.

So let’s assume you have decided to change a behaviour, after years of comments on you turning up late for meetings you have found a way of sticking to your schedule and making it on time. If you have been expecting everybody to notice and be thrilled with your newly discovered punctuality, you will surely be in for disappointment. In all likelihood you will get absolutely no acknowledgement or recognition of the change you have made. At worst, you might get a sarcastic comment or a ‘strange look’. Not a great return on your investment, it would seem. Worse still, people will continue to talk about you being perpetually late to meetings, even if you haven’t been for 3 months.

Whilst this was an example that’s of no great consequence, now think about other contexts where this lack of positive reinforcement can have a profound impact. In the most extreme case we have seen this happen to young adults who overcame their drug addiction, but where the parents and other family members failed to recognise or acknowledge that the person had changed their behaviour. We had to point it out to them, so they would notice. Trouble is, this is most likely going to happen with the people who see you most frequently, who are likely the people you care most about. So it can really be a double whammy when none of your friends or family see that you have shed some excess pounds and then you have a chance meeting with someone you haven’t seen in years and they congratulate you on your weight loss!

To not fall into this trap and feel left stranded without positive reinforcement, you need to bypass the filters that make others blind to your effort. This means you need them to pay attention, to ‘learn anew’ about you in this particular context. The best way to do that is to make your change effort public and to involve others in the journey. Which should sound familiar to anyone who reads self-help books – it’s just that they rarely explain why you should be doing this and how important it is.

The best strategy is to inform the people you want reinforcement from before you start on your journey. Remind them where you think you are at (“I’m late for meetings 90% of the time”) and what you are trying to achieve in what time frame (“I want to be on time at least for 3 out of 4 meetings in the next 3 weeks”). Keep the time frame short and the goal easy to perceive. They will likely still forget, but at least now you have a reason to elicit feedback if they did (“I think I was on time the last 3 meetings, is that right?”). Once you have enlisted a suitable support squad, you can go ‘fishing for compliments’ to get the level of positive feedback you need to keep going. Most people will start to volunteer positive feedback once they believe the change is sufficiently important to you and you are being serious about achieving your goal, so it’s usually not immediate, even with an enlisted support group.

An important addition to this formula is what you need to do if you had ‘constructive’ feedback from your manager about an inappropriate behaviour. The same issues apply, even if you instantly change your behaviour most managers will fail to notice. This means you not only have to change your behaviour, you also have to educate your manager along the way so that they recognise the change as it happens (not 6 months later in your performance review!). You will quite possibly have to be blunt about this – “I took your feedback on board and have been on time to ALL meetings this week, did you notice?”. In addition you need to manage the exceptions, the instances where you fall back into your old behaviour. Because of confirmation bias, those will get noticed and you need to ideally correct any wrong conclusions drawn in the moment to undo the damage – “I know I was late for this meetings, sorry about that, but this is the first time this week and, as you will have noticed, I have been on time for ALL my other meetings”.

If this feels like you are the one doing all the work, you are right. You are not only managing your change and expending willpower to achieve your goal, you are also educating the people around you so that they can adjust their preconceived ideas and beliefs about you in the process. No wonder behaviour change is so hard…