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The One Thing You Need to Know to Change Sales Rep Behaviors (for the better)

Tis the season for...NEW YEARS RESOLUTIONS. So as a tribute to the one month when we commit to make lasting life changes, I wanted to share a recent podcast which helped me reframe the way I think about behavior change and how it applies to managing change in your sales organization.

One of my favorite podcasts, Freakonomics, had a recent episode profiling Angela Duckworth and a group of psychologists and behavioral economists that she assembled to study behavior change. They are looking at ways to, quite simply, make behavior change “stick”. If you don’t know Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and of TED Talk fame, check out her work. (

There was one idea that really jumped out at me. Below is a transcript or you can listen to the podcast here and jump to 31:30 in the podcast.

Kurt Lewin was a German-American psychologist who in the early 20th century developed several ideas that became central to modern psychology. Among them: that people’s behavior is strongly driven by two main external forces.

KAHNEMAN: There are driving forces that drive you in a particular direction. There are restraining forces. Which are preventing you from going there. The notion that Lewin offers is that behavior is an equilibrium between the driving and the restraining forces. You can see that the speed at which you drive, for example, is an equilibrium. When you are rushing some place, you feel tired, or you’re worried about police. There is an equilibrium speed. A lot of things can be described as an equilibrium between driving and restraining forces. Lewin’s insight was that if you want to achieve change in behavior, there is one good way to do it and one bad way to do it. The good way to do it is by diminishing the restraining forces, not by increasing the driving forces. That turns out to be profoundly non-intuitive.

In most cases, Kahneman explained, we try to change people’s behavior with a mish-mash of arguments, incentives, and threats.

KAHNEMAN: Diminishing the restraining forces is a completely different kind of activity, because instead of asking, “How can I get him or her to do it?” it starts with a question of, “Why isn’t she doing it already?” Very different question. “Why not?” Then you go one by one systematically, and you ask, “What can I do to make it easier for that person to move?”

It turns out that the way to make things easier is almost always by controlling the individual’s environment, broadly speaking. By just making it easier. Is there an incentive that work against it? Let’s change the incentives. If there is social pressure? If there is somebody who is against it, I want to influence B. But there is A in the background, and it’s actually A who is a restraining force on B. Let’s work on A, not on B. I have never heard a psychological idea that impressed me quite as much as this one, perhaps because I was at an impressionable age.

So simple yet not the way we usually think about change management in our lives and in our organiztaions. Rather than asking ourselves “How do I get John/Jane to do X?”, we must ask ourselves “What is keeping John/Jane from doing X?”. Once we answer that question we can focus our attention on removing the roadblock that's preventing change from becoming permanent. This is a fantastic way of re-framing challenges in both our personal and professional lives.

I know how I’m going to think about change from now on and it starts with a simple premise, MAKE THE BEHAVIOR EASIER because anything that is difficult has to compete with everything else in our lives and our environment. This competition, yields short-term results and is not a recipe for lasting change.

What do you think would help YOU make change stick?

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