5 steps to achieving sustainable behaviour change

Too often, our well-meaning attempts to change long-held behaviours fail. Here’s how to create the optimal conditions


Humans have a hard time dealing with change. Generally, we don’t like it. As a species, we tend to seek it out more than other species. But actually embracing real change is difficult. It requires acting in a way that can feel awkward and uncomfortable, like writing your name with the hand you don’t usually write with.

Long-held habits, behaviours and ways of doing things feel much more comfortable. That’s why the gym is much less full in March than in January immediately after all the virtuous New Year’s resolutions. But sometimes new ways of acting are required – demanded even. The world changes, and you as a person, or your business, must respond to the shift.

You have to embrace the right conditions to underpin successful change and create new and better habits. Otherwise, the process of change will quickly feel like failure. The following five principles, based on social science and neuroscience, are the ‘make and break’ investments needed to create real change and improvements in your life and in your business.


1. Visualise the change

Unlike any other animals, humans have the power and ability to imagine worlds that don’t yet exist. This ability to envision the future happens in a part of our brain called the pre-frontal cortex.  Other animals that don’t have wings are content to walk around. For us, this wasn’t acceptable because we could see a future where we could fly. We had to create airplanes and other flying contraptions. When other animals are gripped by disease, they don’t go out and invent cures. We do.

So, it’s clear that as a species we’re not just happy to accept what the world delivers to us. We can imagine a world that is better – more desirable – than the one we have right now. And when we visualise worlds that are better, we feel excited and optimistic.

But once you or your organisation starts acting in the new way, cold reality sinks in. The new way of doing things doesn’t come easy or naturally, and so very quickly those feel-good emotions can evaporate. Which brings me to the next step in the process.


2. Connect emotionally – not just cognitively – with the change

If you were going to give up smoking, one of the reasons you might be trying to break the habit is the money you will save. Cognitively, it’s a very good reason. But the truth is, when the cravings set in, it’s unlikely to be powerful enough to stop you from reaching for your packet of cigarettes. But if the reason was tied into emotion (for example, you might not want your children to see you smoking in case they start themselves) this would be a stronger deterrent. Emotional trumps rational.

“When change feels awkward and uncomfortable and when doing something a different way takes longer and uses more of your energy, we really need to know why we’re doing it”

In the same way, if you were at work and a supervisor told you to write with your other hand, the first question would be ‘why’? We’ve always done things one way, so why change now? When change feels awkward and uncomfortable and when doing something a different way takes longer and uses more of your energy, we really need to know why we’re doing it.

And it’s not good enough to hear ‘because I say so’. That will not provide a sense of purpose and will not create the right emotional response for successful and sustainable change. If you cannot see the future in a clear way, you won’t be able to bond with it. If you’re thinking about this from a leadership perspective, you must understand that humans are authenticity-detection machines. If you tell your employees to do something without believing in it yourself, and without creating an emotional pull, they might do it to conform, but you’ll not have secured any real sense of commitment.


3. Understand that pain is actually progress

Some 30 years of scientific evidence and research has shown us how our brains learn new things. Illustrated on a chart, it would look like a curve. It starts well. We leave the gate to embark on the learning journey full of hope and positivity. Then, we start to get into the overgrown pastures of actually practising those new behaviours. It becomes less exciting, because this new reality does not feel good. It’s more time-consuming and energy-consuming. We want to revert back to what felt more comfortable – the old ways of doing things, the old behaviours and routines.

For me, delivering a lecture through Zoom where I can’t see the faces of the participants is very new and very strange. I can’t see anyone’s body language and I can’t know how people are reacting. When you do a new thing for the first time, or the first few times, your brain can try to send you bad messages: you’re messing up; you’re making errors.

But as you’re struggling, you’re also strengthening your brain muscle. You’re learning, not failing – and the signal of pain is progress. If you code that signal as failure, you’ll revert to the old ways – and that is where true failure lies. Yes, that is easier said than done, especially in an organisation where struggle and imperfection is often perceived as failure. This is why, as you move into the struggle zone, you must prepare a ‘sandbox' for yourself where you can play around without risk of loss. As a business leader, you need to crate safe spaces where people can experiment and practise the new behaviours and actions without risk of getting hurt by losing pay, status, or their jobs.


4. Create psychological safety

If you feel bad and get punished for learning something new, you’ll stop learning. You will go back to the old ways. Psychological safety is essential to learning and changing, to be able to go from the start of the journey to the end while not getting stuck in the tricky middle bit.

“As you’re struggling, you’re also strengthening your brain muscle. You’re learning, not failing – and the signal of pain is progress”

Creating a sandbox simply means creating a safe space where innovations and new behaviours and actions can be tested with appropriate safeguards in place but without reproach. It’s like when you teach a child to ride a bicycle, you take them to a grassy hill rather than a motorway and hold their seat to help them get their balance. You don’t scream at them when they fall. A baby doesn’t strategise about walking. They fall over, get up again, fall over again, until they get good at it.

There is no way humans can do new things perfect the first time. But somehow through school and work, we became trained into interpreting learning and experimentation as failure. As a business leader, you must create a safe space for your employees to practice the new thing you’d like them to do without the threat of anything going wrong.   


5. Celebrate early wins

I remember teaching my daughter to ride a bike. There was a slope in our back garden and I remember getting her prepped to go, and seeing her come crashing to the ground. She yelled at me and kicked her bike. In that moment, she felt intense vulnerability and wanted to lash out.

As a business leader overseeing change in your organisation, you have a responsibility to flip the switch: to turn these negative emotions around when people are struggling with change. I showed my daughter the distance from where I pushed her to where she landed when she fell. I told her that she could ride. She just needed to do more of what she had already showed she could do. I showed her the progress she had made which highlighted to her what was possible, and that she was making progress.

Recognise and communicate the early evidence of achievement – to yourself, and to others. As human beings, we have the power to categorise reality. Between stimulus and response, we have a choice. How will you interpret that stimulus? How will you frame the feelings that emerge from the learning process?

Drawing on evidence-based models helps give us ways to talk ourselves into new behaviours.


Dan Cable is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School. Dan’s research and teaching focus is on employee engagement, change, organisational culture and leadership mindset. He teaches on a number of our Executive Education programmes. His new book Exceptional will be published in September and available to pre-order here. 


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