The Necessary Conditions for Behavior Change

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.

Being a volunteer puppy raiser for a guide dog has really been helpful for me to think about how to teach, train, and coach others. I’m often wondering just what the active ingredients are for successful behavior change in executives that I coach.


Countless coaching books and articles are being published on the topic despite a lack of extensive systematic research or evaluation behind them. An often cited article on the topic of coaching reveals a paucity of published studies demonstrating the overall effectiveness of coaching (Kampa-Kokesch, S & Anderson, 2001).

For example, Smither et al., (2003) studied 1,361 senior managers who received 360-degree feedback with 404 of these managers working exclusively with an executive coach to review their feedback and set individual goals. Managers who worked with an executive coach were significantly more likely than the other managers to set specific rather than vague goals, to solicit ideas for improvement from their supervisors and demonstrated greater improvement than other managers based on direct report and supervisor ratings.

In a one-year follow-up study in a large communications conglomerate we have found that significant behavior change was observed by supervisors of those being coached utilizing a comprehensive intervention using individual assessment (360-feedback, personality and career), developmental planning and follow-up meetings with program participants ((Nowack, K. (2005). Longitudinal evaluation of a 360 degree feedback program: Implications for best practices. Paper presented at the 20th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Los Angeles.)).

Overall, the question still remains, “Do people really change?” While, we have only preliminary evidence that coaching can impact behavior change, we do know some of the necessary conditions and factors required to ensure learning and lasting behavior change. Three key conditions for driving sustainable behavior change include enlightenment, encouragement and enablement. Each are necessary, but not sufficient, to ensure a successful coaching intervention with any client.


Most people don’t wake up one morning and spontaneously change or try new behaviors at work (e.g., attempt to listen more effectively, become less autocratic or try to be more participative and involvement oriented). Coaches must try to get clients to adopt new behaviors and styles that are at best, awkward and uncomfortable. People only change for a good reason and becoming enlightened is a key and critical condition required to leverage any behavior change effort. Without increased awareness, behavior change is typically random in that sometimes it will meet the needs of others and sometimes it won’t. All of us have to know what it is about our behavior that is experienced by others as difficult, challenging or frustrating before we will consider even trying to do something about it.

To increase enlightenment as a condition for successful behavior change, coaches should try one or more of the following techniques and strategies:

  • Utilize 360 Feedback. Comparing self-perceptions to those of others is a critical first step to increasing awareness and understanding
  • Provide Behavioral Feedback. Motivation to change can be enhanced when clients are given feedback in a manner that minimizes defensiveness and denial. Individuals are most likely to change when they believe feedback is constructive and accurate and when they are helped to identify specific steps they can take to grow and develop
  • Match Feedback to an Individual’s Self-Insight. Some individuals have an accurate appraisal of his/her strengths and development areas. Others lack true insight about how he/she is perceived by others. Tailor your feedback to increase motivation by matching your client’s self-insight to your approach to delivering strengths and development opportunities
  • Use Motivational Interviewing. Motivational interviewing (MI) is a useful approach for coaches in working with behavior change engagements to assist clients to reflect and target specific performance goals to work on. It is a style that values and emphasizes the client’s values, interests and motives and utilizes reflective listening and probing to help the client make lasting behavior changes


There is an old joke that asks how many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is only one—but the light bulb has to really want to change! Similarly, in coaching assignments, our clients have to be motivated to change or any interventions will not result in lasting performance improvements. To maximize “readiness” and encouragement the following suggestions are offered:

  • Assess Readiness Level. Identify and determine how “ready” your client is willing to initiate new behavior change ((Prochaska, J., DiClemente, C., & Norcross, J. In search of how people change behavior: Applications to addictive behaviors. American Psychologist, 47, 1102-1114)).
  • Provide a Change Model. Introduce one or more of the popular individual, team or organizational change models in the human resources, OD or mental health profession to the client to help them better understand the typical stages, emotional reactions and feelings that accompany individual, team and organizational change.
  • Use Analogies and Tell Stories. Effective coaches are able to “connect” with others in a manner that motivates and inspires behavior change. One simple tool and approach that works well to establish rapport and teach others is to tell relevant stories.
  • Find the “What’s In It for the Client”. Integrate the behavior change efforts with the client’s own career and professional goals. In other words, link your coaching goals closely to your client’s career and professional growth plans.


Not all enlightened and truly encouraged clients are successful at changing their style or specific behaviors that may clearly contribute to future “derailment.” In order for behavior change to be sustained, clients must know what to change and be committed to sustain it over time. The key to successful long-term behavior change is the consistent application of a complex set of skills over an extended period of time. Some strategies and techniques to facilitate enablement required for successful behavior change include:

Maximize Individual Choice. People are much more likely to grow and develop in areas they decide which competencies or skills to focus on and when they are capable of setting their own goals. To stretch clients, it is particularly important to maximize choice, whether it is behavioral goals to focus on or the type of learning to engage in (e.g., experiential).

  • Break Down Learning into Manageable Steps. When a client achieves success on specific developmental goals it paves the way for setting of new, more challenging goals. It is important to “stretch” individuals by structuring goals into small, attainable and manageable steps. Learning and developing competence is maximized when goals are challenging but realistic and attainable.
  • Use Experiential Techniques. Reading books, listening to tapes and attending seminars may be useful, but current research suggests that successful behavior change can be facilitate much more rapidly and deeply by using more active, group and experiential approaches such as work sample simulations, case studies and on-the-job activities (e.g., special projects, stretch assignments, etc.).
  • Build Social Support. It is well known that we develop best in a social environment where mentors, friends, coworkers and even family members going through the same change process can help facilitate a person’s confidence, hope and motivation.
  • Provide Relapse Prevention Training. “Lapses” and “slips” are part of the inevitable journey of personal behavior change. Understanding what leads to these “lapses” and how to effectively cope with periods of personal stress will enable individuals to continue to grow and learn over time without totally relapsing back to old entrenched behaviors and styles.
  • Become a Professional “Nag” by Using Reminders. There is something about people that we all need someone to “remind” us about what is important and not just urgent. Many of our clients have rows of workshop materials filled with materials and assessments from previous training programs, but still have not altered their behavior.

To maximize coaching success, you really have to use and understand the three key drivers of sustained behavior change enlightenment, encouragement and enablement.

Coaches who attempt to maximize all three conditions will have a much higher probability of seeing a payoff in their clients than if any one condition exists alone.…..Be well….
[tags] coaching, training and development, job security, learning accounts, kenneth nowack, envisia, ken nowack, envisia learning [/tags]