Steven's Blog

Character versus Context: Understanding People’s Behavior

I was recently coaching a small sales team and their manager. The energy level of the team was low in comparison with other teams I coach at the same company. Participation was reserved, few people asked questions, and no one volunteered for role plays. If this had been my only experience with this team, I might have concluded that these people are not suited for sales–that they have the wrong character for the job. However, I know this team. This session was the third in a series of five taking place over a few months, and I have worked with the same people in other projects for my client. Something was off.

After the session, I met with the team leader privately and remarked about the low energy level. She explained that of the five members, one had given notice and was leaving in three days to get married, one was to be transferred the following week to a division that she did not want to join, and one had  been struggling to handle accounts alone as a more senior colleague with whom he worked was on an extended business trip overseas.

I am reminded by this that when we observe people’s behavior, how easy it is attribute to people’s character what is really attributable to context. Change the context, and people’s behavior can also change either positively or negatively.
In organizational change, the next time you observe behavior and make a conclusion about character, stop for a moment. Investigate the context. Not all behavior indicates character.

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