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Davis Balestracci

Quality Insider

Frustrated by Glacial Improvement Progress?

Human behavior is as simple as A-B-C

Published: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 - 16:58

As I’m sure most of you have discovered, transformation is not a linear, predictable process. People have insights and breakthroughs in fits and starts, and growth is full of individual, inner personal transformational phenomena. This process can be seriously compromised by traditional attempts to measure them, which are based in pedagogy theory. But did you know that predicting your behavior is as simple as A-B-C?

“A” is an activating event that you experience.
“B” is the belief(s) that you have about that event, filtering it through your unique personal belief system, which results in:
“C” your (observable) consequential behavior(s).

The activating event is a trigger for one’s belief system—ingrained, unconscious rules that result from one’s unique processing of the first 20 years of life experiences. The event is filtered through this system, resulting in an automatic, conditioned, immediate behavior. This behavior could be described objectively and nonthreateningly—as could the consequences it ultimately created in the given situation.

The flow of things, like the alphabet, is: A filters through B, which leads to C.

Albert Ellis, the famous cognitive therapist, tried to help his clients see that C follows B—not A. In other words, the consequences of a situation follow one’s beliefs—not the original activating event.

For a benign example, two people can experience the same activating event, e.g., a rainy day. But because they have different belief systems, they will end up with completely different emotional consequences. The person who believes rainy days are depressing will experience the day as depressing. The person who believes rainy days are delightful will experience delight. As I’ve been hinting, one has a choice in how to respond.

This model works well for behaviors and interpersonal interactions. Its wonderful simplicity can also be adapted to an organization’s culture and observed employee behaviors at work. In this context, one more piece needs to be added: The results experienced by the organization from the consequential behaviors (and actions) of its employees. Thus:

A (quickly) filters through B, which (immediately) leads to C, which has an observable result, R.

Ready for a startling realization? In a work environment, every personal interaction—among co-workers, managers, and customers—is an activating event. Even memos and meetings are activating events.

If, in reaction to these events, employees’ consequential behaviors are not producing the desired organizational results, then the organizational cultural beliefs “tolerating” these behaviors are the cause of lack of results.

And one more startling realization: Patterns of behavior can be “read” to intuit what the belief system is.

You say you don’t believe me? What do schedules, meeting agendas, budgets, and promotions express about what your organizational culture values (i.e., believes), especially about improvement? Do their resulting actions help you attain the results for which you work so hard?

Another case of “perfectly designed”

When I apply this model to one of my favorite statements—“Your current processes are perfectly designed to get the results they are already getting”—1 means current, and 2 means desired.

So A1, or work experiences with co-workers, management, and customers, filters through B1, the organizational culture, which is somewhat influenced by personal B1. This leads predictably to C1, or work behaviors, and R1, or organizational and relationship results with co-workers and customers.

Obviously, you wouldn’t be practicing improvement if you didn’t want better results (R2). But do you realize that your current organizational culture’s belief system (B1), which is perfectly designed to yield the current employees’ behaviors (C1) is thus also perfectly designed to attain R1?

When new results are desired, isn’t the usual tendency the logical, A1 “describe and teach” seminar, e.g., describe R2, then try to teach—once—what needs to be done (C2)?

Remember Ellis’s assertion above that C does not follow A. Unless this A can create a new, changed B2, it will be filtered through cultural and personal B1, such as:
“I don’t need to change. Everybody else needs to change.”
“Here we go again. This, too, shall pass. We can get away with stonewalling.”
“I’ve never been able to understand math.”

Unless these common beliefs can be changed, do you think there will be motivation to act on what you’re saying—or that desired results will be attained?

Improvement teaches people new ways of being

With solid skills training, it is relatively easy to accurately measure development. However, crucial improvement skills concerning “integrity,” “listening skills,” “creativity,” or “level of caring and quality” involve more than just a few basic skills or additional capabilities. Rather than basic, conceptual understanding and practice, participants must discover these for themselves, within themselves and break through to new levels of understanding—with resulting changes in behaviors. In this case, education is not a simple replication process.

If you tolerate it, it’s culture

As a change agent, one’s actions must somehow address the underlying B1 belief system that tolerates and drives the status quo C1. How does one create the B2 belief that the status quo will no longer be an option? Until that belief is ingrained, there is danger that even the best, well-presented material could fall on deaf ears.

Looking at patterns of behaviors, it seems that a common B1 belief of quality professionals about internal seminars or even conference attendance is: “Logical explanation produces changed behavior” sometimes coupled with: “People will read encouraging follow-up e-mails explaining it again (with five-page attachments).”

Given Ellis’s explanation and experience, and acknowledging a virtually universal frustration with the glacial progress of desired improvements, how do you judge the results of that prevalent belief? Could it be false?

Some B2 beliefs for improvement professionals

One possible new belief to drive better results is: “Continuing to present logical information once and expecting it to change current beliefs to drive needed actions and results is wasted time and effort.”

This belief might result in a new B2 belief system about cultural education:
Because logical explanation doesn’t work, a different type of activating event—an A2is needed.
Information must be presented in such a way as to change the current belief system to B2 beliefs that will drive C2 consequential behaviors to produce desired R2 results.
We will need to experiment with various A2s to test which are ultimately successful.
(Hint: It isn’t necessarily inspirational speeches or videos, discussion groups, role plays, or simulation exercises. Well, at least that’s my belief. and Jim Clemmer’s, too. Go ahead if you wish, but test the result.
Follow-up activating event(s) must create the new cultural belief, “This is important. Stonewalling is not an option.”
We call ourselves successful only if we begin to attain R2.

Two key questions for leaders and change agents teaching improvement now become:
1. How do leaders create different activating events to motivate new and changed beliefs in employees that will have desired behavioral consequences to drive the desired organizational results?
2. How do leaders stop re-creating old activating events (or even perceptions of A1) that will inevitably reinforce old, unwanted beliefs, resulting in undesirable consequential actions that will revert the organization back to R1, not R2?

New results will require new beliefs, both for an organization (its cultural B2) and its employees (personal B2) to reduce individual defensiveness and resistance.

Of course, there are those who don’t want to “get it”

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.”
—John Kenneth Galbraith

Given: There is an element in any organizational culture whose belief systems are entrenched and impenetrable. These easily recognizable folks want easy answers for everyone else, and during educational events, these folks look like they’d rather be in a dental chair. Deep down, they know they need to be there but are looking for any excuse not to change. As my friend puts it, “They’d mark you down if they knew you ate French toast for breakfast.”

A favorite technique on seminar evaluation is to take something the facilitator says out of context, feign “offense,” and use that as an excuse to question the ability and integrity of the facilitator, negating their need to learn—which is never face to face, but anonymously through written evaluation. (I get these evaluations a lot.)

As long as they’re not out-and-out saboteurs, an organization can move forward with building its critical mass committed to continual improvement. During this time, just make sure the belief is clearly telegraphed, “We’ll let you stonewall for awhile, but outright sabotage will cost you your job.”

Eventually, however, it will become necessary to entrench the belief, “As long as there’s progress, we will carry the wounded—but stragglers will be shot! Quint Studer believes that when an organization is transforming, there will be an inevitable time when the gap between acceptable performance and poor performance becomes intolerable.

And folks, let’s be honest: There are truly no secrets in an organizational culture. Everyone knows who these people are. Trust me: The culture is watching with interest to see how serious you and the leadership are. Some well-timed dealing with these employees—including firings—(C2, which will be part of the culture in about 30 seconds after it occurs) will then telegraph the belief, “Stonewalling is no longer an option. Excellence is an expectation.”

Whether it’s motivating employees’ individual behaviors to exhibit the desired beliefs or attaining needed organizational results, a new reality of becoming an effective improvement professional is to learn how to deal with “belief systems”—including their own.


About The Author

Davis Balestracci’s picture

Davis Balestracci

Davis Balestracci is a past chair of ASQ’s statistics division. He has synthesized W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy as Deming intended—as an approach to leadership—in the second edition of Data Sanity (Medical Group Management Association, 2015), with a foreword by Donald Berwick, M.D. Shipped free or as an ebook, Data Sanity offers a new way of thinking using a common organizational language based in process and understanding variation (data sanity), applied to everyday data and management. It also integrates Balestracci’s 20 years of studying organizational psychology into an “improvement as built in” approach as opposed to most current “quality as bolt-on” programs. Balestracci would love to wake up your conferences with his dynamic style and entertaining insights into the places where process, statistics, organizational culture, and quality meet.