Personal development: how to change behaviour sustainably

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Alan Watkins
CEO
Complete Coherence
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To understand how to change your behaviour in a sustainable way, you first need to appreciate your biological response and how it affects your brain. 

Most people understand that our behaviour directly impacts the results we get. In dynamic and complex environments, there are some critical behaviours that enable us to collaborate better, develop higher levels of cross-functional alignment and build more trusting relationships.

These behaviours, critical to driving performance, include the ability to think flexibly, to be empathetic and to bring teams together.

However these behaviours are, unfortunately, often rare in individuals, and are also incredibly hard to develop.

So what can be done? To change behaviour, we need to understand what is driving our behaviour.

Affecting what drives behaviour will have a positive knock-on effect on our performance as we become able to think flexibly, be empathetic, and create coherence within a team.

Under the surface

A person's behaviour is just the tip of the iceberg. Everything people say and do – their behaviour – is profoundly affected by what’s going on below the water line.

Behaviour is not an isolated phenomenon. Trying to change behaviour without considering what affects it, is usually a fruitless mission and won’t alter behaviour sustainably.

The predators we face in the boardroom require more sophisticated behaviour than a fight or flight response.

This is why valuable behaviours often stay rare and underdeveloped, and so much leadership development fails to deliver on its promises.

Behaviour is affected by our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions, and all of this is ultimately affected by our physiology.

Therefore sustainable change in behaviour begins with a person’s physiology; specifically the messages that are being received by our prefrontal cortex.

Biological responses

The prefrontal cortex is the executive part of the brain that determines our responses. If your physiology is in chaos then your prefrontal cortex will shut down, inhibiting your decision making skills and your behaviour.

This may sound like a cruel trick, but in a prehistoric era such prefrontal cortex shutdown would have saved your life.

When faced with a predator the body doesn’t want the brain to carefully weigh up the pros and cons of different courses of action, the body wants the brain to shut down and either attack or run - prefrontal cortex shutdown determines your fight or flight response.      

In 2016 the predators we face in the boardroom require more sophisticated behaviour than a fight or flight response.

Therefore we need to learn to control the messages our body is sending to our brain. The most effective way to do this is through controlling your breathing.

To change behaviour, we need to understand what is driving our behaviour.

A rhythmic breathing pattern will create coherence, instead of chaos, and this coherence will resonate throughout your body, preventing frontal cortex shutdown and enabling you to behave in a more sophisticated way.

Achieving biological coherence is the best way to sustainably change the way you behave, and ultimately develop who you are as an individual.

Interested in behavioural change? Read A new way of coaching: how to reset your coachee’s operating system.

About Alan Watkins

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By jcarlin
25th May 2016 11:00

Thanks Alan - a good article. I do think this paints a rather idealistic picture of what it takes to control exactly what is going on. The art of self-awareness, as we know, comes from a heightened understanding of self, the triggers, our ability to regulate and our observations of the world around us. Often there is so much conflict occurring with the psychology of the individual and the ‘hard-wired’ behaviours that ensue can sometimes result in a less-than-satisfactory outcome. That outcome is then imprinted and can cause much anxiety for the ‘next time’. Like those who have experienced the phrase ‘I would like to offer you some feedback…’ will understand, it is extremely rare that our behaviours at this moment match exactly what is happening in our minds. However, the commitment of any individual or organisation to invest time and resources in coaching and mentoring will yield results much faster. Leading to acceleration in self-awareness, cognitive appreciation and creation of personal strategies for counter acting those unhelpful inner-dialogues that can occur at moments when rational thinking is most certainly required.

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25th May 2016 12:53

Robin, thanks for an insightful article.

"So what can be done?"

Stop hiring employees who need to change their behaviors.

"To change behavior, we need to understand what is driving our behavior."

Yes, which is why hiring employees for their behavior make so much sense.

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25th May 2016 12:57

The behaviors that need changing are the behaviors of the executive team.

≈ 80% of employees self-report that they are not engaged.
≈ 80% of managers are ill-suited to effectively manage people.
* The two 80 percents are closely related.

Employers keep hiring the wrong people to be their managers and then they wonder why they have so few successful, engaged employees. Successful employees have all three of the following success predictors while unsuccessful employees lack one or two and usually it is Job Talent that they lack.
I. Competence
II. Cultural Fit
III. Job Talent 



Employers do a… 

A. GREAT job of hiring competent employees, about 95%
B. good job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture, about 70%
C. POOR job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture and who have a talent for the job, about 20%

Identifying the talent required for each job seems to be missing from talent and management discussions. If we ignore any of the three criteria, our workforce will be less successful with higher turnover than if we do not ignore any of the three criteria.
I. Competence
II. Cultural Fit
III. Job Talent

There are many factors to consider when hiring and managing talent but first we need to define talent unless "hiring talent" means "hiring employees." Everyone wants to hire for and manage talent but if we can't answer the five questions below with specificity, we can't hire or manage talent effectively.
A. How do we define talent?
B. How do we measure talent?
C. How do we know a candidate’s talent?
D. How do we know what talent is required for each job?
E. How do we match a candidate’s talent to the talent demanded by the job?

Most managers cannot answer the five questions with specificity but the answers provide the framework for hiring successful employees and creating an engaged workforce.

Talent is not found in resumes or interviews or background checks or college transcripts.

Talent must be hired since it cannot be acquired or imparted after the hire.

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By abhim
25th May 2016 14:07

Thanks for a great article. I strongly believe that the talent can be defined at various levels and roles and responsibilities can be defined according to the level of the job as it demands. It should have both knowledge part and the experience part, while defining and that too with various levels (1 to 5) with lot of gradation in moving towards these levels But it is not an easy task, but I have tried and defined with reasonable success.

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By abhim
25th May 2016 14:21

Changing behaviour is very difficult; In all the Leadership development programs, we try to addess the same; but to influence a change, first the trainer needs to move from a "Contol Mindset to Influencial Mindset". Then only the trainer can infuence the participants to change their behaviour. Also I feel that a strong compelling reason should be articulated to influence these changes. Request your comments on this with your rich experiene.

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