3 Steps to Changing Any Behavior

THE BIG IDEA: Supporting behavioral change in employees and customers becomes possible when you understand what motivates human beings to change and why change usually doesn’t happen.


Tom is a highly talented employee with an impressive CV. He had the precise skills and past experiences you were looking for when you brought him on board. His management position is key for your organization’s strategic direction.

But Tom, you later discovered, has trouble managing his emotions. He has a bad temper and has been known to yell in meetings. He has a persistent habit of aggravating his team members.

The recruiting process was long and costly to hire Tom. You don’t want to start that process over, but something’s gotta give. What do you do?

How Do You Inspire Positive Change?

One of the greatest challenges chief executives face is the management of large numbers of people.

Humans are complex creatures. While we seek organizational order, the reality errs toward chaos. As such, managing conflict among key team members is invariably a prominent, consistent, and challenging task for chief executives.

How do you attempt to persuade others to change? We often try to change people’s behavior by appealing to reason and logic. We provide a sound argument why a desired change is beneficial.

Does it work?

All physicians know that being overweight is bad for their health. Yet, aren’t there many overweight physicians?

You can try telling Tom that if he doesn’t change his behavior and get his emotions under control, that you will have to let him go.

Even if Tom wants to stop his poor behavior, however, this argument isn’t likely to lead to change. Why not?

The Secret to Creating Change

Rational arguments and logic appeal to our prefrontal cortex, our thinking brains. But before logic and reason can influence us, the limbic system—our emotional brain—must first be engaged.

The overweight physician knows that being overweight is harmful to his health. His thinking brain has all of the information he needs to make a rational decision to change.

But where’s the emotional drive? If he’s able to associate being overweight with not being alive to see his granddaughter grow up, for example, he may become sad or angry. These emotions can potentially help motivate him to change his behavior.

Tom is likely aware of the damaging effects of his poor emotional management. That is, his thinking brain knows there’s a problem. The key is to find a way to trigger an emotional response associated with the desired change.

Change is made possible when we evoke our emotional center first. We change when change is meaningful. Meaning is rooted in feelings, not thoughts.

Three Steps to Creating Change

So how can you inspire Tom to change his behavior?

You can paint a picture that highlights the cost of his continued behavior in his performance, his work relationships, and his uncertain future in the company.

In short, you can agitate him. Agitation can lead to action.

You can also inspire him to a new view of his potential: How would it feel to have better control over his emotional reactions? When he triumphs over this behavioral problem, what will it give him? How much more energy and enjoyment might he discover in his work and personal life?

Having awoken his emotional center, you can now give his thinking brain specific instructions. Perhaps he can take steps to improve his emotional intelligence through specific mind training exercises or breathwork.

Finally, what changes can be made to his environment to help make the change stick? Perhaps he can commit to a 3-minute breathing exercise before going into every meeting. Maybe everyone in the meeting can do the exercise together.

To recap, if you want to inspire behavioral change:

Step 1: Tap into the emotional center. Help the person feel the cost of not changing and the benefits to changing.

Step 2: Provide specific actions on the path to change.

Step 3: Set up the conditions in the environment necessary to support the change.

These Same Steps Apply for Your Customers Too

Your customers don’t make decisions based on reason alone. Customers, like all humans, have a healthy dose of irrationality. We are emotional creatures.

Remember: feelings come first; reasons come second.

It is because of this fact that aesthetics, design, storytelling, images, and other facets of branding are so critical for attracting customers.

Our emotional center is moved by beauty, not words; feelings, not logic.

When we first move people through emotions and then lead them with specific directions, positive change is always afoot.

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