Changing Your Office Behavior: Did Anyone Notice?

By: Gene Morrissy

Question: What is more difficult than changing your behavior?

Answer: Getting other people to take notice.

So what can you do about it?

Imagine a time when you received useful feedback regarding something you do that creates problems—such as micromanaging your subordinates or being too tactical about a project. You accept the feedback, ask someone you trust to point out when you do it, and make noticeable improvements. Yet no one gives you any credit. They see you occasionally lapse into the old behavior and say, “He is still doing it,” instead of, “He has improved so much!” It is no wonder that people stop trying to make improvements and fall back on overlearned behaviors.

Isn’t that incredibly frustrating? Over the years, I have given a lot of thought to the psychological principles at play. The first one is the law of primacy, which suggests that early impressions tend to stick. People hold onto their old mental images of you far past their time just like an old Polaroid that should have been abandoned long ago.

Beyond the old Polaroid picture, you have now enabled them to hold onto the old image by asking them to increase their attention on what you are doing poorly. This is the law of recency, which means that people also remember the most recent thing you have done.

If you want to change people’s perceptions, you need to understand and use the law of recency to your advantage. But how?

Ask several people (boss, peers, or subordinates) to notice when you get it right and help them to know what to look for:

  • Define the three to five behaviors you want to demonstrate or exhibit (clarify what good should look like)
  • Ask them to keep a record of when they see you exhibit the behavior, what it looked like, and what impact it had (how it empowered people or how the strategic insight advanced the discussion, for example)
  • Do not ask them to notice or tell you when you slip up
  • Take five minutes every one to two weeks with your observers or “spotters” to review their observations with you

In addition, there are a number of psychological principles at play here beyond the law of recency that are leveraged:

  • Positive reinforcement. The debrief with your observers affirms what you did effectively. It increases the likelihood that you will do more of it (positive reinforcement does not just work with pigeons pecking a lever).
  • Sense of accountability. When you are in the room with one of your observers, it will remind you to demonstrate behaviors for them to record.
  • Credibility of the speaker. You cannot announce how much better you have become—that at best sounds like bragging and few will believe you. However, if someone takes out their old Polaroid and says something about you to one of your spotters, they can recast the picture by reporting how much you have worked to change. That person has credibility. They provide the commercial for you that you cannot provide for yourself. That is what people remember and focus on going forward. (There’s that law of recency again.)

I have used this approach with corporate clients for years. It has a profound impact on changing behavior and the perceptions others have of you. So go ahead and ask for some help. You will feel good, other individuals will be honored to help out, and the business will be a big winner as you make a more significant contribution to your team, your peers, and the business as a whole.


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