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  • Writer's pictureMatt Garris

Finding Vital Behaviors

The following post is adapted from my personal academic coursework.

Finding Vital Behaviors

Grenny et al. stated that finding “vital behaviors,” specifically those “high-level behaviors that drive results” and “produce the greatest amount of change” is one of the keys to successfully influencing others. These are behaviors which Grenny et al. described as happening in critical moments and exerting disproportionate influence on the outcome of any given situation. They go on to identify four methods to identify these vital behaviors: notice the obvious, look for crucial moments, learn from positive deviants, and spot culture busters. Through these means, aspiring leaders can determine those behaviors which most desperately need changed to achieve their goals.

Notice the Obvious

Grenny et al. suggested identifying those vital “behaviors that are both obvious and underused.” This is not a new concept, but people often fail to behave in an obviously beneficial way because it is unpleasant. For instance, the United States has an obesity problem which seems to worsen over time. The National League of Cities estimated that over 20% of healthcare costs are related to obesity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited additional economic and social consequences of obesity including absenteeism, decreased productivity, and its negative impact on military recruiting. The solution to the obesity epidemic is obvious—diet and exercise. However, most obese people find diet and exercise to be too unpleasant to change their behavior. Because these strategies are underused in combating obesity, this crisis, like its victims, continues to grow.

During Jesus’ time on earth, He encountered a massive sin pandemic. The solution He preached was obvious, but underused. Jesus knew that eradicating sin meant getting rid of those behaviors which lead people to sin. In Matthew 5:21-28 (NKJV), Jesus explained that anger leads to the sin of murder and that lust is “committing adultery with her in [one’s] heart.” He was clear that changing the behaviors which led to sin was necessary to change the outcome of sin and its consequences. Jesus drives the point home in Matthew 5:29-30: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you… … and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you…, for it is more profitable that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”

Look for Crucial Moments

Another strategy Grenny et al. recommended for identifying vital behaviors was looking for those critical “times when behavior puts success at risk.” In managing delivery drivers, I learned that beyond the initial learning curve, the differences between efficient and inefficient drivers resulted from their habits of organization on the back of the trucks in the margins of their days. All drivers had trucks that moved at the same speed, similar working conditions, and similar physical abilities. The differences between them were in how often they broke down pallets according to their deliveries as soon as possible and cleaned their trucks as they unloaded them. These habits meant less time trying to recover damaged product and clean up spills, less time digging for product buried at the bottom of a pallet, less time kicking and tripping over empty pallets and plastic wrap, and using time more efficiently throughout the day.

How did I discover this? I learned some of it through personal experience, but the rest came from inquiries and observations. In looking at completed shipping manifests, I discovered that the difference in time was at stops, not between them. As I investigated more deeply, I found that some drivers were faster at every stop and others were slower at every stop, so it was a driver issue, not a stop issue. Employee conversations and observations led me to discover that the crucial moments happened not in the cab or inside the customer’s facility, but on the back of the truck. From there, I was able to identify the crucial moments and the related vital behaviors.

Learn from Positive Deviants

Grenny et al. recommended learning vital behaviors from those strong performers within a group who are the exception to the rule. Saha and Nambiar described the process and benefit of learning vital behaviors from positive deviants: “[Positive deviants are] individuals whose uncommon behaviors or practices enable them to outperform their neighbors with whom they share the same resources, and identification of them can be crucial to bring a sustainable change as their behaviors are likely to be affordable and acceptable by the wider community. Positive deviance is a way of addressing [issues] by.. …scaling up what is working rather than what is not working, to develop policies and programs that help transfer positive practices.”

Spot Culture Busters

Finally, Grenny et al. recommended that influencers searching for vital behaviors “watch for crucial moments that call for behaviors that are currently taboo or punished or that challenge cultural norms.” In education, no student, particularly in younger groups, wants to be the first to admit that he or she does not understand new content. However, determining student understanding is fundamental to effective instruction. While formal assessment has its place in schools, a simple answer as to whether the student understands is a real time-saver in most classrooms. Unfortunately, that goes against a longstanding cultural norm of students saying “I understand” because they are afraid of “feeling stupid” or “looking stupid” in front of their peers. Benuto et al. identified two forms of stigma—public or personal. They explained, “Perceived or public stigma refers to the belief that a person has regarding what others think... …whereas personal or self-stigma refers to the personal attitudes that a person has.” These stigmas limit student confidence in admitting confusion in class.

Many an idealistic new teacher has plowed through an entire month of curriculum in his or her first morning under the impression that the students “get it” because they were all afraid to admit they were confused. Reversing this trend requires both incentivizing students to speak up when they do not understand and removing any stigma associated with not understanding. Doing so allows students to safely give an honest response despite cultural or personal stigmas.


In conclusion, those wishing to influence change must identify the vital behaviors they aim to change. Some of these are obvious but underutilized and change leaders can identify others by finding the moments when they take place. Leaders find some vital behaviors in the cases of positive deviants and others are absent because of the longstanding cultural norms which suppress them. Change leaders should use these strategies to identify these vital behaviors and implement them within the organizations they hope to positively influence.


Benuto, L. T., Casas, J., Gonzalez, F., & Newlands, R. (2020). The behavioral model of health: Education, behavioral health factors, and stigma as predictors of help-seeking attitudes. Community Mental Health Journal, 56(7), 1275-1283.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020). Adult obesity causes & consequences.

Grenny, J., Patterson, L., Maxfield, D., McMillian, R., & Switzler, A. (2013). Influencer: The new science of leading change. McGraw-Hill Education.

Saha, C. & Nambiar, V. (2018). Relationships between positive deviant behaviors and children of normal growth pattern in poorly resourced rural communities. Indian Journal of Community Medicine, 43(3), 161-164.

The Holy Bible, New King James Version (1982). Thomas Nelson, Inc.


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