The challenge of changing behaviours

Liggy Webb’s back with a two-parter about behaviour change.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves” – Victor Frankl

Most people can handle a certain amount of change. The challenge is when we feel overwhelmed with too much change, all at once, and don’t understand the reasons or benefits behind it. With a lack of information and ambiguity it can also intensify feelings of uncertainty, which then result in anxiety about the future.

Certainly from my observations, working within an eclectic mix of organisations around resilience, is that there is more demand and pressure on people to embrace the concept of change than there ever has been before.

Ultimately technological progress has had a huge impact on the way that we lead our lives and to some extent it has upset some of our social and working patterns. Certainly technological advances have led to some very positive changes.

Organisations cannot simply rely on what they have always done and get set in their ways: innovation is fundamental to business success.

The Internet, portable communication and medical diagnostic tools help to improve our lives in many ways and can also make difficult tasks easier. However, technological innovation can also lead to other changes and throughout history when new innovation has been introduced it can have a big impact on society’s values, beliefs and behaviours.

Some changes therefore feel as if they are being thrust upon us whether we like it or not! The pace of life is speeding up and we seem to be a society in a hurry with an increasing desire and need for speed. We seem to be living in the ‘busy ages’ with an increasing pressure to accomplish so much more with our time.

Multi-tasking is contagious and with portable digital communication we can be reached at any time, so it’s becoming increasingly difficult to disconnect and have some time to replenish our energy resources.

In his brilliant book ‘Future Shock’, Alvin Toffler, who was known for his works discussing modern technologies, including the digital revolution, wrote that when people go through rapid change they need what he calls ‘islands of stability’.

These are things that do not change in your life, that are sources of security that can create grounding anchors. If too many things are changing all at once it can destabilise us and create fear, which in turn will induce unhealthy levels of stress.

The trend that the business world is currently facing however is that for businesses to survive they need to keep a competitive edge, which means there is a requirement to constantly challenge the way they do things and to be creative.

Organisations cannot simply rely on what they have always done and get set in their ways: innovation is fundamental to business success. This invariably means doing things differently, which, inevitably, will have a big impact on how people within those organisations behave.


So often I hear this phrase used – ‘now we are going through a period of change’. The reality is, that in a world that is volatile and uncertain, most businesses and organisations are in a constant state of flux and change is now the norm. Given this, there will be times that you will need to examine your options and address your behaviours to be able to navigate and influence the changes that are occurring

But, behavioural change is not just about flicking a switch, because old habits, as that well-oiled phrase goes, die hard.

I recall reading something that Edgar Rice Burroughs, who created Tarzan, once wrote and that is that “we are all creatures of habit, and when the seeming necessity for schooling ourselves in new ways ceases to exist, we fall naturally and easily into the manner and customs which has been implanted within us.”

Habits and behaviours

Habits play a fundamental part in the way that we behave and for a great deal of our time we operate on autopilot, doing what we have always done. There are some behavioural psychologists who have identified that 90% of what we do we do habitually, which means we perform the behaviour subconsciously because we are so used to doing it and it has become entrenched in our thought patterns.

That is obviously useful if it is a healthy habit and something that serves us well, but if it is something that isn’t helpful or even relevant anymore it could well hinder our personal progress and even be damaging to our personal wellbeing. The danger with relying on habits is that we will always get the same results and that may not necessarily be relevant or useful.

Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviours to a part of the brain called the ‘basal ganglia’, which also plays a big part in the development of our emotions and memories.

Decisions are made in another part of our brain – the prefrontal cortex. It is useful to know that as soon as a behaviour becomes automatic and is embedded as a habit, the decision making part of our brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts and requires a great deal less effort, which can be beneficial in that it allows us to focus on something else.

This means that we can perform complex behaviours without being consciously aware of what we are doing.

So, with regards to behavioural change we need to work on rewiring our brain’s neural pathways, which essentially are a series of nerve cells, connected together to send messages from one part of the brain to the other. The good news is that we now understand more, through modern scientific research, about the brain’s neuroplasticity.

We all have the ability to be able to reorganise the way we think and behave by forming new neural connections so that we never need to be stuck with our habits.


About the author

Liggy Webb is a best-selling author and the founding director of The Learning Architect, an international consortium of behavioural skills specialists.


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