What’s below the surface?

below the surface

Ever wondered why people act in certain ways? In a work context you might have wondered why;

Sally didn’t hand that project in on time, even though she knew how important it was...

Bob got into another heated argument with a contractor even though he has been spoken to in the past about his communication skills....  

Why Tim just can’t seem to put his dirty coffee cups in the washing machine instead of leaving it in the sink....

Well Sally, Bob and Tim all exhibit behaviour because of antecedents that occur first. Let me explain a little further.

Behaviour is the middle stage of a three step process;

Antecedents - it’s a funny word, but essentially means ‘the seeds that have been sown’. It’s the environment, language, and exchanges that creates the behaviour.

Behaviour - It’s simple. It the thing you can witness happen.

Consequences - These are the resultant changes that occur because of the behaviour.

So when we want to change someone’s behaviour we must start by understanding the seeds that were sown prior to it, and make the change there. Simply changing behaviour at the surface level will most likely see the problematic behaviour occur again and again. 

Antecedent’s exist at two levels;

  1. the surface level, and 
  2. the foundation level. 

The key is to focus on changing the foundational antecedents to see a permanent change to behaviour.

So let’s look at the antecedents for Sally, Bob and Tim’s behaviours.

Firstly Sally. Her surface level antecedent was she didn’t hand the project in on time because of a four day conference she attended last week, leaving her behind in her day to day tasks. Her foundation level antecedent is she doesn’t have effective time and prioritisation skills to balance her workload and pre-plan for her time out for the conference. 

Now Bob’s argument stemmed from chasing the contractor for the best part of a week, leaving several emails and phone messages, only to have them say ‘first I heard about it’. This is the surface level antecedent. Bob’s foundation level antecedent is he has never worked on his communication processes when he gets frustrated and angry and exhibits poor emotional intelligence skills.

 Lastly, Tim’s surface level antecedent that drives his behaviour of not washing his cup is because he knows someone will eventually do it for him anyway, when his foundation level antecedent is that at the age of 22 he still lives at home and his mum always does that stuff for him! 

Your strategy as a manager is to influence changes on the antecedents that occur at foundation level. So Sally could be coached on some time management skills, Bob could attend a training program for emotional intelligent communication, and Tim...well stop everyone mothering him! 

The most important reason for developing an understanding why people do what they do is so you can influence what they do next. If you are in a management or leadership role, influencing people (and their behaviour) part of your everyday business.