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Adapting and Modifying Behaviors

20 January, 2016 - 16:32

When we learn something new, we change our perspectives of our world, the way we interact with others, and our behaviors. We also learn when our behaviors are inappropriate and, hopefully, learn not to repeat them. We do this by adjusting our behaviors so that the situation does not occur again. We act differently based on previous consequences. If our behaviors resulted in a positive impact, we would continue the behavior. Take, for example, the following story about New Zealand’s soccer team, “All Whites.”

After landing from a long flight from Austria, New Zealand’s soccer team, All Whites, heads to the South African stadium for their first day of training. They are met by a “smelly fog” on the field, making it difficult for players and coaches to breathe and see. One player comments on the smell and smog saying, “You could tell [it was smoky] as we came in on the bus. You could taste it, breathe it on the bus. It’s something that’s a bit different for us and something else to adapt to on tour.” The management team debates canceling the training and in the end decides to have players stretch their legs and get some exercise. Local South Africans on staff are confused at the entire ruckus and can’t understand why a team would stop playing because of a “little smog.” The players and team management can’t understand how anyone could play under such conditions. 1

Learning a new pattern of behavior requires modifying small behaviors that add up to a complex behavior. Learning new patterns can be difficult but the motivation to modify and change can be transformational. Kevin Cashman said that positive change means letting go of our old behaviors and allowing change to be our teacher. 2 As leaders, we must recognize our own capacity to change—that we have what it takes to make a change. To make a change, you need to believe you are capable of performing the behavioral change and that there is an incentive to change. Similarly, Margaret Wheatley said this about the human capacity to change and transform,

Viability and resiliency of a self-organizing system comes from its great capacity to adapt as needed, to create structures that fit the moment. Neither form nor function alone dictates how the system is organized…The system may maintain itself in its present form or evolve into a new order, depending on what is required. It is not locked into any one structure; it is capable of organizing into whatever form it determines best suits the present situation. 3

When making changes to your behaviors, there are three questions to ask to help initiate the change. 4

What is changing? To understand change, you must be clear about what you want to change in your cultural interactions. Then, make it your intention to change and carry out the change. Finally, your change must be linked to your motivation for changing. You will need to ask, why is it important that I make this change? How will this change my future interactions with this individual or cultural group?

What will actually be different because of the change? Because transformative change in cultural interactions can be hard, the ability to visualize the end result or outcome of the change can help move the situation forward. Visualization requires an articulation for what the desired result and outcomes look like. Setting clear expectations for getting to the desire result can help motivate you to making the change.

Who’s going to lose what? In any cultural shift you will need to ask yourself, What beliefs and values might I have to let go? Why is it hard to abandon your beliefs and values? How well have these values and beliefs served you? What are the barriers they create for your future? Consider the following case study of two individuals’ behaviors in relation to one other:

Jose is from Costa Rica and Mary is from Great Britain. They work together in an international company located in the United States. Mary notices that whenever Jose talks, he always inches closer to her personal space. She’s extremely uncomfortable when this happens and always takes steps back to give more physical space to the conversation. When she does this, Jose comes closer. One time, Mary was backed up to a work place counter and Jose didn’t even notice!

Imagine that Mary and Jose work for you, and Mary has approached you with her concerns. To help Mary find a solution to this situation, use the following table to help you to think through some important questions; then, look at the second column as one possible perspective or thought about the question. Finally, fill in your perspective and thoughts.

Self-concept does not necessarily mean that you have the knowledge and skills to be where you need to be. Because change and transitions are emotionally and psychologically taxing, making a connection between the behavior change and the outcomes can help to ease the transition. In some cases, if an individual is not responding to the change, rewards and reinforcers are used to increase a behavioral response. Even adding a compliment can increase a person’s behavior toward However, if a person does not know what fuels his or her self-concept, then the challenge in making a transition will be more difficult.

Table 7.1 Changing Cultural Behaviors


One Perspective/Thoughts



How do Mary and Jose view personal space? How does this impact their behaviors?

Mary feels a great need for personal space. As a woman, perhaps she feels a greater need for this space. Jose does not see a problem with the personal space. Maybe getting closer to her is one way of relating to her.


What are the adaptive behaviors needed in this situation?

Mary and Jose need to understand that everyone has different ideas of what personal space means. It may be helpful for

Mary and Jose to talk about personal space issues, especially

what it looks like for both of them. Perhaps Mary is the only person who feels uncomfortable and the only one to have brought this up. Maybe others do not feel the same way.


What, if anything, will Mary and Jose

Through conversation, Jose and Mary will discover that their idea of personal space is related to their cultural upbringing.


lose if they change their behaviors?

They might be resistant to the change in the beginning, because they see it as “their individual cultures or their national cultures.”


What will be gained from changing the behaviors of Mary and Jose?

Mary and Jose will have a greater understanding for working together. Mary can focus on what Jose says instead of focusing on his body language toward her, and Jose can learn to control his own body language and to read that of others.