Can We Have Change Without Behavior Change?

CHANGE MATTERSby Beth Banks Cohn, Columnist & Featured Contributor

[su_dropcap style=”flat”]S[/su_dropcap]OMETIMES, we go to a class or a workshop and we leave all fired up: We’ve learned a new way to approach problem solving, or gained a new skill in handling conflict, or we’ve just been inspired by someone who is doing great things in their field.

We go back to work, full of ideas about how we’re going to Change the World or even just our own corner of it…and then, after a few days or weeks, the changes we had resolved to make either fail to launch or fall by the wayside.

Why? Because any real, lasting change requires real, consistent behavior change.

behaviorchangeWhenever I work with a group, the last thing I ask at the end of the day is “What will you do differently tomorrow (or on Monday morning)?” It’s a critical question, because in order for our situation to become different, we have to behave differently.

Work smart – and then smarter

In 1993, Anders Ericsson studied elite musicians. He found that they work hard, but more importantly they work smart- and then challenge themselves to work even smarter. Elite musicians practiced: they worked at their craft consistently, day in and day out. They worked smart: they had teachers to coach them and provide feedback all along the way. And they worked smarter: they didn’t practice too much – 4-6 hours a day, no more.

Edward Taub, a leading neuroplasticity researcher who works with stroke victims, found a similar trend with his clients. After 4 hours of therapy a day, stroke victims made no more positive gains when they spent additional hours on speech or mobility therapy. At that point, they simply reached a point of diminishing returns.

Ericsson found that elite performers needed to avoid exhaustion to maximize gains from long-term practice – the same could probably be said of Taub’s stroke victims. This flies in the face of what we learn in the business world: We’re told and taught – and most of us think – that the more hours we work, the better we’ll be. We don’t take vacations, or even a day off without our iPhone or Blackberry.

However, most of us would find that we’d think better and be more productive if we actually took more time off. Disconnecting for 48 straight hours on a weekend doesn’t mean you’re not committed to your career – it means you return to the fray rested, recharged and able to tackle challenges more effectively than you do when you’re chronically exhausted and drained.

Behavior, action and lasting change

In positive psychology, ‘coping’ is a term used in relation to self-esteem. The idea is that we learn when we take action – put ourselves at risk in some way and then cope with the consequences. It’s acting outside of our comfort zone that builds our self-esteem. It doesn’t even matter if you succeed or fail – simply taking action drives the new neural pathways that lead to greater positivity and success.

Implications for Organizations

People who enjoy lasting change have a bias for action – and for working smarter. The same can be said for organizations. When organizations try to change but then fail to implement behavioral changes that will reinforce the change, the change won’t stick. Similarly, if change isn’t accompanied by sufficient downtime for individuals to process, adapt, and build positive new neural pathways, the change won’t deliver the desired results.

I was once involved in a change in a sales force where there was great resistance to changing the sales representatives’ incentives. They were being asked to change the way they sold, but the sales administration department didn’t think it warranted a change in how they would be paid. I’m sure we can all see where this is going – introduce a new way of selling but incentivize using for the old way of selling. It seemed obvious to most people involved that this was not going to work. Yet it was a hard sell. That group didn’t get the relationship between behavior and successful change. Eventually they were convinced (actually directed) to change the incentives based on the new selling model. It actually worked out for the best because by the time we went live EVERYONE was convinced that there would be no behavior change without incentives in this case.

It was also important that the change be given time to sink in before implementing another change. This is so hard to do in organizations when the pressures for profits and results often keeps the changes coming fast and hard. You may have heard me say ‘give change a chance’ and what I mean by that is that you do need to give the change some time be absorbed and begin working. Companies that are looking for fast results are often disappointed – and start the change cycle all over again.

Another challenge I see related to behavior and change is that there are leaders who want a change implemented and want everyone else to change but see no need in changing their own behavior. That is always a red flag for me, and should be for you too. In order for a change to be successful organizationally and for it to have any hope in sustainability, change must happen at all levels – even the very top.

The concepts of Behavior change are very clear at the individual level. I find organizations that fail to extrapolate out the concepts are perpetually poor at implementing change. In this day and age, where the ability to change and be nimble is essential for all companies, large and small, this is quite worrying.

People often ask me, ‘how does change happen’ and my short answer always is: ‘one person at a time’. It is essential to plan globally but act locally when it comes to implementing sustainable changes. There are no shortcuts.


Beth Banks Cohn
Beth Banks Cohn
BETH is dedicated to helping individuals and companies implement business changes that actually work. Beth believes in the ripple effect – that change handled well benefits everyone in an organization, over and over again. As a recognized expert in change as well as corporate culture, Beth consults domestically and internationally with a wide range of disciplines and businesses. Beth is the author of two books: ChangeSmart™: Implementing Change Without Lowering your Bottom Line and Taking the Leap: Managing Your Career in Turbulent Times…and Beyond (with Roz Usheroff).