Growth or Resentment: Upsides and Downsides of Behaviour Change Programs

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.                                                          ~Viktor Frankl


Historically, performance expectations for managers focused on ensuring that they had a clear understanding of what they were expected to achieve, by when, and using what resources. Increasingly, performance expectations are expanding to include requirements for specific behaviours that are believed to be in line with effective management and leadership practices perceived as essential to desired organizational cultures. Development programs, personalized coaching, and sometimes even incentives are provided to support cultivation of these desired behaviours.

On the surface, this approach seems logical. Organizations are doing what they need to do to achieve results in a competitive and rapidly changing context. Likewise, individual managers are doing what they need to do to meet requirements and pursue life and career ambitions. However, from a human maturation perspective, these behaviour change agendas pose two real yet hidden risks. They risk obfuscating the negative impacts of genuine talent misalignment, and they risk deflecting the natural growth and unfoldment of individuals in service of utilitarian ends. Both can contribute to unhealth in human systems.

Let’s explore why this can happen…

Personality psychology recognizes that shifting the ‘locus of control’ from outside oneself to inside oneself is a sign of healthy ego development. The more an individual believes that they have a measure of control over the outcome of events in their lives, the more powerful they feel and the less likely they are to praise or blame external factors for their experience of successes and failures. The sense of autonomy and personal agency that accompanies an internalized locus of control is closely associated with high performance in a wide range of demanding jobs.

In this context, performance expectations can serve as challenging scenarios that invite people to exercise personal agency and continue their ego formation journey. Individuals can choose to lean into achieving desired results and reap the dual rewards of career satisfaction and career success from doing so.

So far so good. However, when performance expectations expand to require behavioural change they begin to put the intrinsic motivation and wellbeing of individuals at risk. Instead of progressing along their natural path towards an internalized locus of control, self-transcendence, and possible self-actualization, individuals can find themselves on a downward spiral into a progressively less energized and meaningful life experience.

How can this happen…

Emotional and spiritual maturation require us to shift our focus away from individualistic ‘me’ concerns toward more encompassing ‘we’ concerns and ultimately ‘communal’ or ‘all’ or concerns on the path to self-liberation (i.e., fostering the humility needed to let go of ego needs and reactivities in favour of higher order meaning and purpose). The more an individual builds a deep sense of inner spaciousness, connectedness, resourcefulness, and meaning that isn’t tied to surface-level identity markers or external rewards, the more they feel strong and able to withstand rejections, frustrations, and deprivations without losing a sense of dignity, self-worth, and motivation. The more likely they are to resist destructive emotions that can bring harm to themselves and others.

By requiring a person to reason, relate, and act in ways that are not true to their nature, behaviour change agendas risk tipping the locus of control back outside the individual. Moreover, they risk causing the person’s attention and intention to fixate more heavily on ‘me’ and ‘mine’ for reasons that have little to do with growing their own will to meaning.

Whether this collapse into self-consciousness is temporary and eventually transforms into genuine spiritual growth (an expansion of perspective and capacity to hold the tensions of paradox) depends on how significant and rapid a shift the person is being asked to make, how compatible the shift is with the directionality of their personal meaning system, and how heavily they need to rely on outside-in validation to sustain their engagement with the non-preferred behaviours. When employment stakes are high, people can find themselves making choices that stall or even deflect them from their natural maturation path for years - call it selling their souls to conformity.

Why does this matter…

In addition to the very real risks to individuals, this path to increasing organizational performance is on shaky ground. Evidence of high return on investment for behavioural change programs is scant despite their popularity. The reason for this is simple. Unless the individuals participating in the program have a natural inclination toward self-transformation, and the benefits of the change are clear and compelling based on a purpose that is meaningful to them, the program is likely to produce limited results. Low-grade resistance and even active disengagement are more likely to occur. Over time, an organization can find itself growing a culture of quiet resentment and mistrust more so than the authentic commitment and engagement sought after and needed for robust high performance.

This doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless…

Organizations have a legitimate need to perform well. As such, they should not be required to place effective job performance behind the career ambitions of individuals. Similarly, individuals have legitimate needs for meaning and growth, and should therefore not be required to place their emotional and spiritual maturation behind the commercial ambitions of organizations. Either scenario represents a losing proposition that cannot help but deliver sub-optimal results over time.

What people and organizations can do is choose to use best-in-class methods and tools to match talent-to-task in ways that align the natural behavioural preferences and self-identified growth and unfoldment needs of individuals with the legitimate performance requirements of jobs, teams, and structures. Beneficial outcomes can be realized for both parties if deep behavioural diversity is honoured as the building-block of healthy human systems.

What is needed though, is clarity and realism on both sides of the equation about what is possible, as well as shared commitment to reciprocity, with the individual working in the best interests of the organization, and the organization working in the best interests of the individual. In this way, people and organizations can build healthier, deliberately developmental human systems that are characterized by trust, engagement, commitment and robust high-performance over time.

Mirroring the very insightful words of Charles Handy, Irish author/philosopher specializing in organizational behaviour and management: “We need to rethink how organizations, particularly businesses, are actually run, why they are run, and what their purpose and role is in society.”

To do this takes the profoundest level of leadership courage: courage to move away from the prevailing employee/employer contract which is grounded in the utilitarian exchange of hours and effort for money, toward one that honours the psychological nature of the contract and includes the development, growth and unfoldment of members as an agreed upon purpose, value, and priority for organizations.


 Germaine Watts is a thought leader, author, speaker and co-founder of Ensentious – a consultancy and workshop/retreat provider dedicated to helping individuals, teams, and organizations thrive. As a mindfulness coach, SuccessFinder expert, and facilitator with the Centre for Courage and Renewal, she seeks to foster connection between soul and role in ways that support of personal, organizational, and societal transformation.