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Why do people do
what they do?

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by John Austin in Behavior change, Feedback, Leadership, Safety

The most common questions I am asked by business leaders over the past 10 years are: 1) “Why do people do what they do?”; and 2) “How can I get people to do what they are supposed to do?”

The answer depends a lot on the context of course, but here’s how I generally respond. The more than 80 year history of behavioral science can be boiled down to 3 basic factors that drive our behavior. 

      1. Genetics and biology. Our biological makeup is influenced by lot of things while we develop and mature throughout our life and in part determines how we’re likely to respond in a situation, what our likes and dislikes are, and many other things.

      2. It is also nice to know that our history and past experiences are a major driver of our current behavior.  What we have learned and experienced in the past drives how we are likely to respond in the current environment.

      3. The third factor that drives behavior is environment…and by environment, I mean your local environment.  That is what is around you right now, at the moment you are behaving.  At work, this means the equipment and tools, coworkers, smells, sounds, lighting, supervision, and everything else that makes up the environment.

The problem with all of this knowledge is that as leaders, it’s got limited utility.  That is, until we can change biology, we can’t use it to produce different outcomes from our people.  So…it’s nice to know.  History and experience is, by definition, in the past…so we can’t change that one either.

The one factor that we DO have control over is environment. The good thing about this is that leaders have lots of influence over the environments in which their teams work.  We can influence behavior by changing those environments in specific ways. 

That’s the big insight of behavioral science…it’s ALL about how we can change the environment in ethical and nurturing ways to get more of the behavior we want from ourselves and others.

I’d love to hear your thoughts – do you currently use this knowledge to lead and manage? Leave me a comment below.

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