How can you change your employees’ behaviours?

How can you change your employees’ behaviours?

November 4, 2016 by Stella Petrou Concha

Leaders struggle with influencing shifts in how their team members behave in business. How can neuroscience insights inform a better leadership approach?

We’ve all tried to break a bad habit and failed. Whether it is cutting down on swearing or finally kicking that nicotine addiction – changing up our day-to-day actions is no easy task.

That’s because there is something intrinsically difficult about changing our behaviours. Our brains are wired to favour our routines and established practises. For business leaders this creates a particularly difficult challenge.

In order for companies to continue to succeed there needs to be a consistent evolution in internal practices and employee functions, yet these shifts stem from a change in behaviours across a business.

The question becomes: How can leaders effectively transform the way their team members behave for the sake of organisational change?

Internal change starts with understanding yourself
Having a better grasp on how the brain works can influence your strategies for internal change. 

What findings affect behaviour?

According to Strategy&Business contributors David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, ample research over the last two decades has led to some notable breakthroughs in understanding the nature of behavioural change. By fusing psychology and neuroscience, researchers have unlocked some key ways to influence mindful change.

Leaders that take the time to appreciate and leverage these findings are better positioned to steer their team in new directions. Rock and Schwartz noted six takeaways from the cognitive research that should influence a business’ approach to organisational change – concepts that may seem contradictory to previous leadership understanding.

Change: Studies have shown that change is often a painful process. It induces feelings of physiological discomfort. While change is a necessary part of business evolution, managers tend to underestimate the difficulty of implementing it because they don’t fully understand the level of neurological stress and trouble this causes employees.

While aiming to engage and empathise with employees is noble, it is not a sufficient approach to enacting change.

Behaviourism: Contrary to popular belief, leading change through behaviourism models doesn’t work. When you build your efforts for transformation on incentives and consequences, they rarely succeed in any durable way, explained Rock and Schwartz.

Humanism: While aiming to engage and empathise with employees is noble, it is not a sufficient approach to enacting change. Leaders that politely point out problems with performance and appropriately incentivise their team (a humanist approach) are far less successful than those that ask the right questions and let employees find an answer on their own.

Focus: Cognitive scientists discovered that the brain can make huge changes when responding to a new environment over 20 year ago and this finding still has huge implications for leaders. Moreover, when you focus your attention on a particular area your brain can alter how it functions. The takeaway? Behavioural changes are largely motivated by where we put our attention.

Expectation: Research has revealed that people’s expectations and attitudes play a much more critical role in perception that previously believed. In essence, what you believe about your professional role can often become true. An employee that believes they can adapt to a new practise often does so because that can-do attitude seeps into the brain and becomes action.

Attention density: Continual, meaningful and focused attention has the potential to lead to durable individual change. Studies have shown that the more time you dedicate to a thought or action, the more likely it is to become wired into your brain chemistry.

Influencing behaviour as a leader

With these takeaways in mind, we are still left with one pressing question: how? What does changing behaviour look like in practice?

The answer is surprisingly simple. Instead of highlighting problems and prescribing specific solutions, leaders needs to highlight the direction they want the company to go in, allow their team members to take their own desired paths to that end goal and then continually encourage these approaches. During the process, they need to concentrate intensely on the development of these paths. This approach is what makes behavioural change stick.

Taking different paths can lead to the same end goal
Your employees can take different paths and still reach the same end goal. 


“The power truly is in the focus, and in the attention that is paid,” explained Rock and Schwartz.

Countless scientists and their research have confirmed that this approach is what the brain responds to best. The trick here is accepting, as a leader, a completely new model of management. Instead of buying into the notion that knowledge is power and the transmission of this information leads to change, we need to embrace a more abstract approach to learning. Only then can we truly lead intrinsic behavioural changes.

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