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Leaders who want to achieve high performance in their organizations recognize how difficult it can be to get people to change. It starts with changing brains.

brain gearsEven those who have achieved greater performance levels and are tempted to feel satisfied with the status quo understand that no matter how well their teams may be performing, they can do better. Furthermore, the way people behave today will have to change tomorrow, because if anything is certain, it’s that the things will change and demand new ways of behaving once again.

Whatever the impetus for change, it will only work if everyone in an organization changes. That is, if they understand why they must change, how they must change, and how change will benefit them and the organization. In short, leaders can’t just tell people to change and expect it to happen.

But even when entire organizations believe in and embrace the idea of change, it doesn’t always happen. The way people act now is not an easily changeable thing. Behavior is embedded in peoples’ brains, deep in neural pathways, based on past behavior, and reinforced by habit. “The way we do things around here,” is not just common expression, it’s a warning sign that a performance groove may have become rut.

A short course in neuroscience would help explain just how fierce a hold habit has on behavior. But simply put, the brain likes patterns of behavior and rewards habitual behavior deep in its innermost labyrinth of neurological connections with highly satisfying feelings. Likewise it can react to the simple idea of behavior change with emotionally painful reactions.

To achieve change, you must go below the surface and effect deep transformation, rather than settle for shallow, prescriptive practices. Only those leaders who actively regulate their behaviors, constantly check their biased and old thinking patterns, and consistently practice quality communication with a high degree of frequency will be able to Feel. Think. Act. Talk. in ways that achieve the rare ability to drive accountability and motivate engagement.

While habits are difficult to change, they can change. And by understanding what goes on in the brain, managers can manage behavior change more effectively. I recommend reading That’s the Way We (Used to) Do Things Around Here by Jeffrey Schwartz, Pablo Gaito, and Doug Lennick in Strategy Business.

In the meantime, let me summarize what the authors have identified as the six essential steps to achieving change at the neurological level of the human brain.

1. Recognize the Need for Change

Change, as I’m sure you’ve heard, begins with changing yourself. Then and only then can you expect to inspire change in others. And organizational change has to involve everyone. Change begins then with the recognition of the need for change and requires reflection. You begin by recognizing the way you think and, as you do, coach your teams how to do the same.

2. Re-label Your Reactions

Begin your change process by recognizing in your thinking those thoughts that direct you to continue doing what you want to stop doing. Then identify those thoughts as what they are. Namely, the thoughts you want to change, as opposed to the thinking you must follow. They are you telling yourself to continue doing things the way you’ve always done them.

3. Reflect on Your Expectations and Values

Next replace old expectations with a clear and detailed new vision of the future state you desire. Bring your imagination into the game and envision for yourself and your teams where your new behavior will take you. Paint the future in specific terms describing tangible results and projections of desirable and rewarding outcomes.

4. Refocus Your Behavior

The fourth step will have the greatest impact on your behavior. Identify the new behavior you want to practice and start engaging in that kind of behavior. Sound simple, but you must do more than act. You must constantly reflect and focus on how and why the new behavior will get you where you want to go.

5. Respond with Repetition

Hold yourself, especially yourself, along with others, accountable for consistently behaving the new way. This step requires the greatest degree of discipline and will prove to be the most difficult step at first. But it will get easier and easier and eventually become as habitual as the old behavior was.

6. Revalue Your Choices in Real Time

Finally, keep yourself and others constantly mindful of your progress. Eventually the new way will feel good and natural, even more so than the old way.

Then get ready to change all over again when our turbulent, ever-changing world demands it. But take heart. Change should be easier every time you accomplish it.

See also:

Effective Leadership Lies Below the Surface

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Helanie Scott
Helanie Scott
Helanie (pronounced yeh-LAH-nee) Scott, CEO and founder of Align4Profit in Dallas, Texas, has driven stunning leadership and cultural transformations for an impressive list of organizations. She has mastered the ability to connect with her audiences in the boardroom, classroom, on stage, or in one-on-one coaching sessions. Helanie’s Align4Profit clients rave at the way her engaging programs freshen outdated mindsets and deliver results-oriented, aligned action.