Sometimes the best fix for behavior problems isn’t to address the behavior itself. Sometimes the most effective solution is to change the situation. Situation problems can cause behavior problems, and unless you know how to tell the difference, you can waste a whole lot of energy trying to get someone to change.
Bart Millar, an American history teacher at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon, was frustrated by some of his students.
Robby and Kent frequently arrived late for class, then they’d sit in the back, talking to each other, laughing loudly, and generally disrupting class.
Millar tried getting tough with them, imposing stricter limits, and even sending them to the principal’s office several times.
Nothing worked. The students’ bad behavior continued to disrupt class.
Then Millar tried a completely different approach. It was genius. And it had nothing to do with trying to persuade them to change their behavior.
Millar bought a used couch and placed it in the very front of his classroom. The couch very quickly became the cool place to sit. Students could slouch and relax instead of sitting at a desk.
Soon, Robby and Kent began arriving at class early. They had to. Because that’s what it took to get the best seats — on the couch.
Millar’s story was made famous by bestselling brothers Dan and Chip Heath in their 2010 book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard (Bart Millar’s name is real but the students’ names were changed).
And it’s one of my favorite examples of a behavior problem addressed not by carrot or stick, persuasion or fiat — but by tweaking the situation.
Is it the person or is it the situation?
So how do you know when relief is best found by changing the situation instead of trying to get the person to change their behavior problem?
Look for situation problems before you decide it’s a personality or interpersonal problem. You can try for hours on end to help people get along better, but if the situation they’re in continues to press on them in difficult ways, it’s pretty likely they’ll continue to have a problem together. Ask, If you could imagine for a moment that this could be caused by a problem with the environment or situation, instead of with them as a person, what could you imagine might be going on?
Dig beneath challenging behaviors and difficult dynamics to uncover root causes. Instead of taking behavior problems and difficult dynamics at face value, look for the circumstances and situations that spark them. Ask, When does it happen? When it’s happening, what are the circumstances?
Pay attention to situation problems that are hiding in plain sight. Policy changes, changes to the physical environment, staffing changes, and organizational changes can all spark difficult behaviors that look personal or interpersonal. Ask, Were there any changes going on when this first cropped up?
Consider if the person acts like this in all situations. I try not to be rude to others but when I’m very tight on time and need to get something done by a looming deadline, I become noticeably more brusque. Would I do well to work on this part of myself? Sure, and I do. But it makes everyone’s lives better if I just show up an hour sooner. Ask, Are they like this all the time with all people? What is it about this setting/situation/circumstance that brings it out in them?
Consider solutions that look like work-arounds. Bart Millar’s classroom couch was an incredible work-around, obviating the need to keep hounding the students about their disruptive behavior. Ask yourself, What would Bart Millar do?