Changing Suboptimal Behaviours

When something goes wrong in our organisation, too often the immediate reaction is to search for scapegoats, say Costas Markides and Anita McGahan in the most recent issue of London Business School Review ("Achieving Change that Lasts," vol 26.1). "We rarely look to rectify the underlying structure of the system that encouraged that individual to misbehave" (17). In other words, it's all too easy to blame people [in a school] for bad behaviour and to seek to replace them, rather than to consider whether the system itself is responsible for the undesirable behaviour. Markides and McGahan propose, and I tend to agree, that "the sad truth is that if the underlying reasons are not corrected, the same bad behaviours will emerge again and again no matter how many people you punish or how severe the punishment" (17).


One of the potentially misguided conclusions one might reach after reading something like Good to Great is that getting 'the right people on the bus' is the obvious fix, relative to the bad apples that (ostensibly) are preventing the school from advancing. However, often it is not so obvious as Jim Collins might have us believe. Replacing 'the wrong people' with 'the right people' as the clear and best solution almost always fails, as the authors observe. "It doesn't matter how 'good' the new people are. If you put them in the same situation or structure, you will soon get the same bad behaviours out of them as you did with 'bad' people" (17).


Leaders, a term in which I would include anyone who supervises others or influences others, tend to hold people responsible for systemic problems because, as actors in the system itself, they represent that very system; it's just that they cannot see it because of confirmation bias and/or anchor bias. "Changing a system requires a much more sophisticated approach than only changing the individuals involved. Replace the people without changing the values, culture, and incentives, and the same mistakes will occur over and over" (17). As the authors suggest, the notion of thinking differently about this particular problem is especially challenging because it requires creativity at exactly that moment when the mandate for change is urgent. All this talk about creativity in educational circles today, and we are confronted with an acute need for it in terms of change management.


I find it remarkable that we still tend to believe that we can get people to do what we want (or need) by the simple application of incentives. This approach rarely works; it may result in short-term increase in performance (however we define that and measure it in schools), but it is not sustainable. We don't usually see lasting change, which is precisely the kind we want. A change in the underlying system itself, therefore, is what is truly necessary. For leaders not trained in systems thinking, this perspective is missed entirely, and schools that have exhibited issues of this kind in the past continue to exhibit them. Leadership and governance teams scratch their heads and wonder why. A (now) classic case is the notion of expecting teachers to be more creative. Too often, we provide incentives that don't work because the extant system (our anchor bias) tells us that we must incentivise with money (e.g. a stipend). A teacher's remuneration is the only change lever seen, yet it is one in a system of many. If we are not providing incentives in the area of release time, participation in and leading of teams, and increasing autonomy as part of the process, the long-term change we desire will come to fruition only rarely; probably more by accident, as it certainly wouldn't stem from design. Additionally, as the co-authors proffer, incentives are only one part of a much bigger picture. An exclusive focus on incentives leads one into making a number of big assumptions about what should be done first, meaning that there isn't ample concentration on establishing an appropriate frame for the decision-making process.


Changing the overall structure may seem a daunting task. It is undoubtedly challenging. Fortunately, though, as Jay Forrester comments, all social systems (and schools certainly qualify as such!) "seem to have a few sensitive influence points through which the behaviour of the system can be changed" (Principles of Systems, 1968). It is key for leaders to identify the "high-influence" points in the system, as it will lead to a better outlay of energy and time invested in making a systems change. If we concentrate on high-influence points and strive for a series of small yet methodical changes within these points, we will achieve change much more easily.


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