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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

One Way to Lead Behavior Change - The Dissonance Bomb

“I want you to have 100% control over me at work, “ said no veterinary professional.


None of us wants to be micromanaged.

Yet, as leaders, many of us default to command and control approaches when someone on the team behaves badly.

How many times has the following played out in veterinary hospitals like yours:

  • Susie CVT sends you a text, “I’m running a few minutes behind today.”

  • She arrives 15 minutes late. It’s her first time so you let is pass.

  • Two weeks later you get another early morning text from her, “Sorry but my alarm didn’t go off. I’ll be a bit late today.”

  • A few days later she comes in to work 7 minutes late. Only this time, she didn’t call or text to warn you.

  • You pull her aside and let her know this is not OK. She is expected to be on time.

  • She comes in on time every shift….for a few weeks.

  • Then you get a text, “My car won’t start. Getting a jump. I’ll be about 20 minutes late.”

  • Two days later another text message, “I had a family issue last night. Slept like crap. Running behind this morning.” She shows up 12 minutes late.

  • You’re getting sick and tired of this…and so is your team.

How do you respond?

Most managers resort to some sort of disciplinary policy. Maybe it involves a tiered system from verbal warning to written warning to a Performance Improvement Plan.

“If you’re late 3 more times in the next 90 days, for any reason, you will be terminated.”

Serious question – how often has this approach actually worked? By worked I mean “turned Susie around”.

In some cases your “Susie” might improve for a while. Or at least make it through the PIP time-frame. The fear of losing her job may be enough motivation to keep her in line for a while. Months later the lateness returns.

In other cases that externalized motivator just won’t cut it. She’ll squeak by for a bit. Eventually, she’ll falter. You’ll fire her and be back on the “shorthanded, desperately seeking experienced technician to jump right in and excel” wagon.

In either case, have things really gotten better for you, Susie, and the team?

There’s another approach you could try. Don’t pressure her into changing. Let her pressure herself.

My Brain Hurts, I’ll Change

Thailand has an epic smoking problem. While almost 100% of adults know smoking is bad for them, over 20% of them still smoke.

Typical educate-and-pressure efforts to change their minds (e.g., don’t smoke advertising, graphic warnings on packs of cigarettes, etc.) don’t seem to make a dent in the numbers.

One approach did.

In fact, it resulted in a 40% increase in calls to the free quit-smoking hotline.

9-year-old child actors were hired to approach adult smokers on the streets. With an unlit cigarette in hand, the children asked the smoking adult for a light.

Shocked, every adult they approached not only refused to light the child’s cigarette, they actually lectured the kid on the damaging effects of smoking. They tried to get the kids to not smoke.

At this point, the child smiled and asked, “then why do you smoke?”

And handed them a flyer with the number for the quit-smoking hotline.

You see, when we tell others what to do, the normal human response is what psychologists call reactance. Push on me to change, I’ll push back. “You’re not the boss of me!”

But…if you can remove the pressure and help someone see the tension between what they do and what they value, you’ll create a phenomenon we call cognitive dissonance. That’s when our actions and our beliefs don’t match up. It’s incredibly uncomfortable.

In this way we create the conditions for them to change their own mind.

It doesn’t always work, of course. But a 40% increase in smokers looking to quit is pretty huge.

Hit Susie with a Dissonance Bomb

Susie has a human brain too. That means your pressure (by way of fear, threats, or authority) may not work because she’s just as prone to reactance as any of us. It may not even be a conscious decision.

Try hitting her with a dissonance bomb instead.

A friendly bomb. Don’t hurt her. Just make her brain a little uncomfortable. Here’s one way that might look:

  • When you’ve decided Susie’s lateness is persistent, take her aside for a private, distraction and interruption free conversation.

  • Start with, “Susie, I see you’ve been late to work ___ times in the last (week/month/100 years). You’ve given us a heads up for most/all of them. For that I thank you.”

  • Then continue with, “Susie, I’d like to ask you a question. Let’s say I put you in charge of hiring our next technician. You get to craft and post the ad, look through the resumes, conduct all the interviews, and decide who to hire. You’re interviewing a candidate. She’s highly qualified and, based on the interview so far, you like her. As the interview comes to a close she says to you, ‘Oh, by the way, if you hire me I’ll be 10-20 minutes late for work about once a week.’ Susie, would you hire this person?”

  • More often than not she’ll say, “No.”

  • Then you ask her, “So why are you consistently coming in late to work?”

Boom. Dissonance bomb.

Susie’s brain is now quite uncomfortable and she’ll want to work on alleviating the tension between what she believes (employees should be on time) and how she’s behaving (I’m not coming to work on time).

Chances are the best way to alleviate the tension will be to come in on time from now on.

This approach isn’t perfect, by any stretch. It won’t always work. But the pressure and push approach is far less effective. If you can improve your success at changing Susie’s behavior by up to 40% wouldn’t you want to at least try?

One more thing to consider. The dissonance bomb works, in part, because it generates some guilt in Susie. That’s OK. A little bit of guilt can be a powerful motivator for productive change.

Just be careful to not veer off into shaming her. Guilt is about how we are behaving. Shame is about who we are. If you come on too hard with the “why are you coming in late” gotcha, you’ll risk challenging her identity as a professional person.

If our identity is at risk, reactance kicks in even stronger.

The goal with the dissonance bomb is to help them see the mismatch between how they are acting and what they believe. It is not to show them how bad they are.

Positive Leaders seek to coach their employees to unlock and unleash the best parts of who they are. Sometimes those best parts are locked in a bunker. A kind little dissonance bomb might break through.

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