The location: Midwest, manufacturing company headquarters, 2nd floor, marketing department. The date: circa 1988, around 6:00 p.m. Peter, a British ex-pat newly installed as CEO of a U.S. subsidiary, is strolling slowly around the aforementioned marketing department, peering into the mostly darkened, empty offices of the brand managers and marketing directors.

Upon reaching one of the rare executives still at work, Peter blurts out a question. Unfortunately, the new top brass talks like a parody of the English upper class. His lips never part enough to reveal his clenched teeth and no one on this side of the Atlantic is ever sure what he is saying. In this instance it sounds like, “What is happening to your market share in Peoria?” The hapless marketer does his best to answer and Peter nods then moves on.

On the morrow, the handful of marketing executives who braved Peter’s vaguely comprehensible queries receive public accolades. The loud, unspoken message to their peers is clear: where were you at 6:00 p.m? Within a week, the new norm in the marketing department is to remain in the office, armed to the firmly-clenched teeth with statistics on the latest business performance in every U.S. market, until at least 6:15 p.m. A late departure for Midwesterners who typically arrive at the office by 7:30 a.m.

The habit of working late (by local standards) persisted for many years after Peter was replaced by a comparatively laid-back leader from upstate New York. Why? Why did the new work habit catch on faster than the Beatles and why did it endure, like fish ‘n chips, long after its British reason for being disappeared? The answer to these questions can help in your quest to create lasting change at your company. This is in marked contrast to most behavior-modification efforts, which succeed only a few heartbeats past the moment the consultants depart or management’s attention turns to the next big project.

Let’s say you want your employees to be more safety minded or to actually follow the decision rights you are rolling out. To pour cement around new organizational behaviors, draw on recent learning in the field of neuroscience. This heady research has revealed that:

  1. Many habits are, almost literally, wired into our brains.
  2. The brain can change; i.e., the physical circuits can alter. However, those changes can take up to a year to develop.
  3. The permanence of a physical circuit in the brain is, in part, determined by the emotional impact of the context in which it is formed. In other words, smelling the burning drippings from your Lean Cuisine dinner while you doze in front of a Simpsons’ rerun won’t convince you to always double check the stove, but if your house burns down (for real or in your nightmare), you’ll never leave the stove on again. Ever.