Challenges in Behavioural Change and Ways to Overcome them17 March 2017
According to scientists we are living in a VUCA world, a world that is more and more impacted by increasing levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.
The amount and pace of transformation around us is overwhelming. Change has become the new normal. Meanwhile we are very good in identifying, observing and analysing from a third-person’s point of view all kinds of change that are happening around us or needed for the greater good, changing our own long-established, traditional behaviour ourselves or driving even others to change their behaviour remains challenging. Many of us know from personal experience how difficult it is to get rid of a bad habit, to apply a healthier life style or balance work-life in a better way. It is quite astonishing, even if we see the benefit and understand the need for change and although we have the knowledge, the skills and resources to act accordingly, we regularly fail to adopt and to take the necessary actions. So what is it that makes changing behaviour so difficult? And what can help us driving change more successfully – for our own benefit and the benefit of others? Deeper awareness about behavioural patterns we apply, the mindset we choose and the meaning we give to our actions might be key.
Human needs as core drivers of action
Even if it sounds very simplistic, we do not do things for nothing. There are no actions that we take or do not take that are not related to conscious or subconscious needs. Becoming aware and reminding us of this motivation in the first place therefore seems to be important. Psychologist Abraham Maslow, as one of the initiating representatives of the human mind psychology movement, laid the foundation for a deeper understanding of human behaviour by developing his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ model. Entrepreneur and book author Chip Conley advanced this model further in order to adapt it to the reality and requirements of the developed societies in the Western hemisphere. He therefore clustered Maslow’s originally 5 layers of needs into three main categories.
Meanwhile ‘survival’ stands for basic needs (e.g. income, home, health insurance, pension plan) and ‘success’ for psychological needs (e.g. love, social recognition, status, power, freedom, learning & development), ‘transformation’ focuses on the need of fulfilment, the need to do something meaningful that provides purpose and makes a difference from one’s own perspective (e.g. legacy, charity, self-actualization or make the world a better place). As the wish to fulfil the needs of all categories provides us with a strong inner motivation, we as human beings learn and develop skills and capabilities by studying, by copying others, by trial and error, by thinking things through or by following recommendations.
How success creates patterns
When our learning effort and actions prove to be beneficial and either safeguard survival, provide success or allow certain transformation, the applied behaviour will be memorized and saved on our human brain ‘hard discs’ for repetition. This point often marks the beginning of building behavioural routines and patterns. Of course, patterns and routines are not bad per se. They bring lots of efficiency and make us feel much more certain, self-assured and relaxed when dealing with daily challenges and activities. However they might also have a downside, when we are not critical with them. Look at companies like Nokia, AOL, American Airline. What do they have in common? They were once market leaders in their industry segment. They were satisfied with what they achieved and they continued applying success models of the past. Today we know they had to pay a price for it. There is a saying in football: never change a winning team. Really? Are you 100% sure you want to play with the same team against Real Madrid since the team proved to be successful against TuS Ingelheim? It worked in the past, so why shouldn’t it work in the future? We easily believe that success models of the past provide a guarantee for success in the future. Even worse, the more often we apply and execute on basis of certain experiences of the past, the more likely is it, that we overlook other, potentially better or much more correct solutions of today. Remember, Nokia developed the first smartphone in 1995, ten years before Apple started to make it a commercial success. Obviously patterns prevented Nokia from taking smarter actions. On individual level this phenomenon of stimulus reaction often results in short-sighted, unbeneficial responses, like ‘that will never work’ or ‘I tried it once – I will not try it again…’ or ‘Yes, but…’. It often creates self-limiting beliefs and assumptions, which reduce the likelihood of development and change further. Therefore, the most fundamental challenge in behavioural change is obviously to keep questioning our patterns and routines and to remain critical with ourselves, even if we have found a success model that is fulfilling our needs in the presence and even if we do not see any immediate need for change. Not for nothing many successful organizations and individuals are the ones that are continuously questioning and developing themselves. Think about Google, Madonna or Bill Gates.
Changing behaviour is a multi-layer endeavour
Now that we know what drives our actions, how behaviour patterns are created and that questioning ourselves is one of the core challenges, let us focus as next step on the question how we can overcome these patterns. Obviously this is not a simple exercise, as we have to consider the main aspects influencing our behaviour, as they are:
These aspects are connected with the questions:
- How satisfied am I with the results of my previous actions?
- How capable am I to take ‘other/the right’ actions?
- How much meaning can I give ‘other/the right’ actions? What could hold me back?
- How do my experiences from the past influence my belief and actions of today?
Changing behaviour seems to be simple if we are not at all satisfied with the results of our actions. If there is a big pain or pressure, normally we are quick in adapting to our needs. However, if the level of satisfaction reaches as certain percentage, the likelihood for going the extra mile and changing behaviour drops significantly. With regard to the action layer, knowledge and skills are interestingly enough not the main missing elements for changing behaviour. Very often we know exactly how and what could help us to improve results and raise our level of satisfaction and we also feel normally very capable to act upon this knowledge. Our belief is the key aspect in changing behaviour. ‘Belief can move mountains’ when providing us with a strong meaning. Being convinced about something and having a positive picture of the future in mind, it is a source of energy and motivation increasing the likelihood of success significantly. However, often our subconscious mind (our little inner voice, we call him The Buzzy) dominates our belief and provides us with good reasons, why changing traditional behaviour might not be a good idea. It creates and maintains limitations (Red Lines) and develops escape routes: avoidance, justification and compensation strategies preventing us from taking action to change, keeping us in our comfort-zones.
Of course, our beliefs are based on experiences we made. Remarkably, our subconscious minds create stronger memories about negative (loss) experiences than about positive (gain) experiences, meaning that when in doubt avoiding loss and failure weights heavier than creating opportunities or gaining new experiences through change. Therefore, if not aware and actively dealing with our self-limiting beliefs, we might get caught in our comfort-zones and safety containers. Opportunities to develop and grow on personal, organizational or business level and the conviction to make a difference are reduced with as result very often a decrease in confidence and self-esteem.
How to overcome challenges in behavioural change?
Now that we gained insight into key influencing factors of behavioural change, what kind of practical recommendations and inspirations can we derive from it in order to become ourselves even more open and successful in changing traditional behaviours?
Hug the past – obviously you have come a long way and you managed to survive or even to become successful. Be proud of what you have achieved and about the success models you have applied so far.
Open up for the idea that today’s success is based on approaches and efforts of the past - they do not provide any guarantee for the future. Change will be required for keeping today’s status and/or further growth.
Be aware of and become friend with your underlying belief, as it is the core driver of your action. Consult your friend regularly. Identify fears as healthy mechanism to protect you for shortsighted action, utilize meaning as source of energy and passion.
Visualize the positive outcome deriving from changing your behavior as concrete as possible. Describe the future achievement, the meaning it provides to you and the feelings you connect with it in all details. (Mini experiment: creative power)
Gather the resources that help you to make the change happen - be it supportive people and environments, tools or skills. Then start right away putting your plans into practice. There might be no better moment than right now.
How to inspire others to change behaviour?
As we now know some tricks and insights how to change behaviour ourselves, how can we help others to do so as well? What can we do to support e.g. our pig farmers in taking more advantage of our consultancy services and offers? Here some inspirations:
Build rapport on personal level and recognize their achievements and successes. They proved to be successful so far and they have all reasons to belief in their success models and experiences of the past.
Show true interest in their well-being, objectives and future success. Ask and listen. Help them to open up for the idea that today’s accomplishments are no guarantee for the future and that further development might be needed.
Draw together with them a positive picture of their future. Identify needs, fears and transformation opportunities. Share with them how you can support them with your competences and experiences to achieve their future targets.
Invite them to do some little tests and trials with you. Offer some low barrier opportunities to get to know you better (e.g. 10min extra at next appointment?). Allow them to figure out themselves how they can benefit from your services.
Follow up closely. Monitor, document and share the successes you achieved together in developing their business. Be positive and open for critical feedback they might have in order to develop relationship and establish trust on the long run.
Finally, please remember, establishing a good relationship is like a marathon not a sprint.
Closing / conclusions
Being successful in fulfilling own needs can reduce the open-mindedness and willingness to change. Behavioural routines and patterns are created that on the long-term can limit our development and growth opportunities and keep us in our comfort-zones. Changing behaviour in practice therefore is less a question of knowledge or skills, but a question of mindset and awareness. The clearer we are about conscious and sub-conscious mechanisms preventing us from changing behaviour the better we can deal with them. Hugging the past, questioning the presence and giving meaning to actions required for the future are critical elements to initiate change for oneself and for others as these aspects unleash the energy and motivation needed for successful behavioural change. To change traditional behaviour and to overcome self-limiting beliefs it sometimes helps to remember the times in which we were more open to take our chances: when we moved to another city, changed job, travelled abroad or tried exotic food for the first time...
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