Crucial Skills®

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How to Influence Bad Behavior

Dear Crucial Skills,

What do you do about folks who absolutely refuse to take responsibility for their own behavior?

One of my colleagues frequently behaves disrespectfully and even aggressively toward others—including myself. A number of us have spoken with him about his behavior. At times he’s defensive and denies the problem—but at other times he’ll apologize then ask me or others to monitor his behavior for him. At the end of the conversation I have somehow become responsible for his future behavior.

How can I change this so that he is responsible for his own behavior and starts to make real changes?

Not My Job

Dear Not,

First, let me offer a note of encouragement.

In researching our latest book, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, one of the most inspiring places we visited was an organization called Delancey Street. Delancey was founded thirty years ago by Mimi Silbert, a remarkable woman who has changed the lives of more than 15,000 graduates of her program. Mimi works exclusively with hardened felons and drug addicts and has a 91 percent success rate at helping them turn their lives around—forever. She gets no government funding and has no staff, no guards, and no locks. All she has is a remarkable influence strategy.

Now, here’s why I bring up Mimi. She would tell you that the most powerful source of influence she taps is social influence—the peer pressure applied by the combined group of Delancey residents. She believes that people who behave badly typically do so because those around them allow and enable their bad behavior. And the reason people at Delancey change is because everyone around them demands that they change.

When I hear questions like yours, it’s hard for me not to remember Delancey. Mimi’s philosophy makes me stop and wonder, “If someone is behaving so badly, in what way are those around them part of the problem?”

So—thank you for your question. Your question demonstrates your willingness to examine your own role in perpetuating your colleague’s bad behavior. And since you asked, I’ll offer two suggestions about how you can ensure you are part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

1) Hold the right conversation. It sounds like you have raised concerns about his bad behavior. What you haven’t done is raised concerns about his failure to take responsibility. Whenever you walk away from a crucial confrontation feeling unresolved or suspecting things won’t really change, you should take those feelings as a sign you didn’t hold the right conversation. Your real issue is not his bad behavior; it’s that you believe he isn’t owning up to his commitment to change. That’s a different conversation. It’s a trust problem, not a behavior problem.

2) Move to Action. The goal of a crucial confrontation is not mere understanding, it is real change. That’s what you were hoping for and didn’t get. And part of the reason is that you failed to agree on consequences and boundaries. Whenever you’re concerned about recidivism, you should deal with that question in your crucial confrontation. Let’s say, for example, that your colleague shows acceptance of your concerns about his behavior. And even agrees to change. If, based on your past experience, you believe he may not change, it is your job at this point in the confrontation to raise this issue and agree on what will happen if he doesn’t change.

For example, you may say, “I am hopeful about the commitment you’re making. And yet I hope you’ll understand that since we’ve discussed this before and it continued to happen I am nervous about your follow through. I would like to have an agreement with you about what I will do if the problem occurs again. Does that sound reasonable to you?”

If he consents, then you should propose something like, “I believe my next step should be to hand this over to HR or your supervisor. If it happens again I don’t want to feel responsible to continue to have to deal with it. And I think you are in a position to make this stop forever, immediately. Do you agree? I’m trying to be clear that this is not my problem to own, and that since this is now a ‘relationship’ issue, I must discuss how the boundaries of our relationship will need to change if the problem isn’t resolved.”

Finally, I suggest you figuratively link arms with others. In the spirit of Delancey, if everyone demonstrates a resolve to not tolerate his behavior, he will either change or leave. That is how people work. No one can stand being in an environment where others neither allow nor enable his or her bad behavior. So once again I congratulate you for your willingness to examine your own role, and encourage you to spread the word to others. You have enormous power to influence change. Use it!

Best wishes,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

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2 thoughts on “How to Influence Bad Behavior”

  1. Gale Holt

    Thank you for this well-reasoned, assertive, yet compassionate strategy. I am a high school teacher and I am using this!

  2. Karen

    This is so helpful! We have similar situations at my organization. I just finished taking the CC class…it was outstanding! (Wish I had had it in my first marriage….)

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