The Behavior Change that Stuck Around Forever

Oct. 31, 2012
Want to introduce new behaviors into your organization? Here's advice on making new habits as permanent as a bad tattoo.

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.

Making New Habits Sticky

Therefore, to make new habits as permanent as a bad tattoo, you must supplement the basics of behavior change with stickiness factors. The basics are covered in myriad tomes, articles, training courses and certification programs that produce karate masters. They tend to include elements such as:

  • Ensuring your employees have the requisite skills and capabilities;
  • Installing systems and processes which allow, encourage and monitor change;
  • Using exemplars or model the desired behaviors yourself.

The stickiness factors marry management and neuroscience, and are captured by the acronym CUBEST:

  • Concrete actions, not theory. Our brains do not store abstract concepts as well as concrete examples, which can translate into specific images and “memories.” If Peter had uttered a proclamation that he expected marketing executives to work assiduously and put in long hours, the few people who understood what he said still wouldn’t have stayed past 5:00 p.m. Instead, he prowled the halls looking into offices. Expectations are abstract; missing an ad hoc meeting with the CEO is concrete.
  • Usefulness which is obvious to the people involved. For employees’ habits to alter, there must be some utility -- some meaningful reason - they should want to take on the new behavior. Not only that, the emotional utility must exceed the emotional impact that put the old behavior in place. Public accolades are a strong, emotional boost. Public admonitions are even stronger.
  • Believable rationale. Your employees must trust that your promises of everlasting bliss or impending doom are true. The best proof, of course, is a demonstration. Peter left no doubt that if you were AWOL or unprepared, your physical or intellectual absence would be noted. Since Peter popped around regularly at 6:00-ish, the marketing team trusted that he would continue to do so.
  • Envisionable plans. In English, that means, capture what you want to change in the form of a story. Either write the story or ensure that it writes itself. The story of Peter walking the halls was told and retold numerous times and, as with all good stories, it vividly captured the protagonist’s mannerisms and, more importantly, the emotional impact.
  • Simple outcomes, actions and approaches. For reasons that remain shrouded in mystery, Peter thought it was important that marketing executives work late and memorize detailed knowledge about their products’ market share in every city. Perhaps he believed those were the proverbial broken windows of marketing , and that by changing just those couple of habits he would inspire a much broader, positive effect. Regardless, he did not issue complex, detailed requests like some white-wigged barrister at an English inquisition or ask for a wholesale overhaul of culture. Just a couple of changes, easily seen and easily put in place.
  • Time appropriate for making changes. The good news is that the emotional roots of most business habits are more akin to grass than dandelions. Shallow emotional roots means less difficulty altering behaviors; however, since the changes you want to put in place probably won’t inspire triumphant fist pumps or inconsolable weeping, there’s not great depth of emotion working in your favor either. Therefore, the vast majority of behavior changes will require constant reinforcement over at least nine months to forge new neural pathways.

Out at the Midwest manufacturing company, few employees remember Peter and the days of memorizing market share are long gone. People still arrive early and work until 6:00pm or later, though. Almost as if a chap sporting a bowler might pop by the office at the end of the day and expect them to be there.

David A. Fields is the author of the forthcoming book, The Executive’s Guide to Consultants (McGraw Hill, 2012) which can be preordered at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.Contact him at [email protected].

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