Changing Behaviours

Changing Behaviours


[Tl;Dr: If your organisation is changing and needs its people to adopt different – maybe more productive – behaviours, the Antimatter Principle can help make that happen.]

It’s Not About Morality

I’m guessing that many people see the Antimatter Principle as some kind of moral crusade.

“Do the right thing!”

“Attend to folks’ needs!”

“Be a better human being!”

“Be kind to people!”

Nothing could be further from my intention. My position on the Antimatter Principle is (almost) entirely utilitarian. Which is to say, I invite you to consider the consequences of applying the principle, rather than judge it in a deontological moral or ethical context.

Let’s look at the problem it’s trying to address, and the nature of the solution.

The Problem

I have been for a long time interested in the thorny question of people and their behaviour. What drives people’s behaviours? Why do certain people behave in one way, and others in different ways, even in much the same situation?

More specifically, why do people doing various kinds of knowledge-work, such as software development, not adopt the most effective ideas in the field? With the advent of the internet such ideas are widely known and easily referenced, yet uptake is slow and patchy, to say the least.

I guess there are dozens, maybe hundreds of different reasons why people don’t adopt a new idea as soon as they find it. But I’ve been looking for some more general “rules” governing these situations.

Needs Drive Behaviours

I have come to the working hypothesis that, overall, folks’ needs drive their behaviours. That is, people do things to try to get their deeper, personal needs met. This interpretation of behaviour comes from e.g. Marshall Rosenberg’s work on Nonviolent Communication.


Not explicitly mentioned by Rosenberg, but now receiving attention from neuroscience, is the question of why do different people go about getting their needs met in such wildly different ways?

For example, why would one “normal” human being attempt to “get things done” by diktat, when some other “normal” person might attempt to “get things done” through collaboration, dialogue, and fellowship?

Allow me to introduce the word “strategy’ here. In a given situation, attempting to get a similar need met, different folks may well employ demonstrably different strategies. These different strategies may span a broad spectrum – from highly ineffective through to highly effective. It’s difficult to imagine why people might continue using highly ineffective strategies when getting their needs met is the key driver, but even cursory observation tells us this happens all the time.

Indeed, this is central to the work of Chris Argyris, when he talks about espoused theories (the strategies people think they use, and believe would be effective) vs theories-in-action (the strategies people actually use, in reality – almost always less effective than their espoused strategies).

Where do our strategies come from? They come from experience. The strategies we each use in our day to day lives, we have acquired since birth.

The crucial challenge, then, for each of us, is not in acquiring strategies, but in replacing less effective strategies with more effective ones.

Aside: This is the de facto core of most kinds of therapy, counselling, coaching, and so on.

The Challenge

In a work setting, where e.g. managers are concerned – at least in principle – with finding ways to make people more productive, the challenge could be characterised as:

How to get the people to replace some or all of their less effective strategies with progressively more effective ones?


Not harming the longer-term cognitive function and goodwill of these same people.

Normative Learning Owns

In her maddeningly inconsistent book, “The Art and Science of Changing People Who Don’t Want to Change”, Reut Schwarz-Hebron suggests that normative learning is the only path to replacing less effective strategies with more effective ones. That is to say, only when a new strategy is tried in the crucible of action, and found superior to the existing strategy, will the new strategy win out, get adopted, replace the previous one, and stick.

Aside: This emphasis on normative learning is, of course, one of the foundations of John Seddon’s Vanguard Method.

Aside: Reut’s book says nothing, explicitly at least, about the matter of interlocking strategies (memes, if you will) and the challenges of replacing entire memeplexes of interlocking memes, wholesale. I’ll not delve further into that topic here, today, either.


Reut Schwarz-Hebron also suggests that some 90% of people are unable to effect such replacement of their own strategies without some external support, such as from a manager, coach or therapist. Her book goes into more detail about the “system” she has invented to help e.g. managers provide this support.

Aside: Her “system” reads way too much like PR hokum for my liking. YMMV.


So, from a utilitarian perspective, adopting the Antimatter Principle – attending to folks’ needs – is, in itself, a strategy for getting a need met.

What, and whose, need? The need of the organisation, manifest through the needs of its managers and executives, to see its people replacing less effective behaviours with more effective ones.

And the path to getting that need met?

When people begin attending to folks’ needs, people start to become conscious of needs. In turn, people begin to become aware of the strategies they – and others – are using to get their individual – and collective – needs met.

Once the idea of strategies – and the very possibility of replacing them – takes hold, people can then – but only then – begin to consider the relative merits of their present strategies, and potential candidate replacements.

Back To The Neuroscience

Wrapping up, I come back to the neuroscience. My writing this post may provide you with some information about the Antimatter Principle and how it works to support changing behaviours. But that’s not going to do much to help you change your behaviour, adopt the idea, adopt it as a strategy. (See: The Problem, above).

For 90% of you, unless and until you apply it, your brain will find all kinds of ways to resist it and reject it, no matter how much more effective it might promise to be in practice. And for that 90%, it’s likely that you wont even get to applying it without some external support.

Where might you start looking for such support?

– Bob

  1. Thank you for my morning daily read. Always find the further development of your thought process useful, because it helps inform and develop my own current way of thinking about change. In my current way of thinking about this, developing metaphorical landscapes, as per Clean Language coaching interventions, is a strategy for getting that support for change that you mention may be needed. It does not create experience, but it creates the internal resources (metaphors) that might be called on when the strategy is then needed in action.

    • And my thanks to you for your comment. Such comments help meet my need to be writing stuff that’s timely, relevant and useful. Do “metaphorical landscapes” as you conceive them facilitate “mental rehearsal” – as in sports visualisation, for example? I can imagine how this might help the EBS in normative learning – even away from the gemba.

      – Bob

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