The Persistence of Behavior: the Role of Neuroscience in Change Management

One of the central challenges and objectives of change management is to help each person in a group, team, department or process area successfully make and sustain the transition from state A to state B.

This note highlights the importance for performance improvement professionals to recognize that successfully transitioning from one state to another is often inextricably linked with deep-set behaviors whose change is much more profound than many people realize.

Specifically, I assert that it is important to recognize and consider the role of human neuroscience in how we think and act. For example, a great deal of medical research is focused on the nature and role of parts of the brain such as the basal ganglia, or the brain’s “habit center,” that handles voluntary motor control (semiautonomous activities such as walking or driving) and procedural learning; the amygdala, an area related to emotions such as fear and anger; and the hypothalamus, which manages instinctive drives such as hunger.

Importantly for the purposes of change management, research indicates that people revert to the basal ganglia’s processing because it is physically rewarding to do so and, in using the neural patterns of the basal ganglia, the pattern is further reinforced. Put another way, “entrenched” (literally hardwired in the basal ganglia) behavior is satisfying to enact and the very act of following the entrenched behavior, the pattern is further engrained in the neural center.

To change a behavior, we would need to imprint a new neural pattern in the basal ganglia. I believe many if not most efforts aimed at achieving  and sustaining a change in behavior fail because many performance improvement professionals underestimate the amount of repetition of the new behavior is required in order to successfully imprint the behavior in the basal ganglia. We might conduct training sessions or provide coaching but many times I think we vastly under invest in the change management support required to groove the new behavior long after the change is made.

One way to think about the progression from the initial point of behavior change to a state of the new target behavior fully embedded in the brain, is to consider the Dreyfus Model developed by Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus of the University of California, Berkeley. In a paper published in 1980, titled “A Five-Stage Model of the Mental Activities Involved in Directed Skill Acquisition” written for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. In their abstract, they wrote:

In acquiring a skill by means of instruction and experience, the student normally passes through five developmental stages which we designate novice, competence, proficiency, expertise and mastery. We argue, based on analysis of careful descriptions of skill acquisition, that as the student becomes skilled, he depends less on abstract principles and more on concrete experience. We systematize and illustrate the progressive changes in a performer’s ways of seeing his task environment. We conclude that any skill training procedure must be based on some model of skill acquisition, so that it can address, at each stage of training, the appropriate issues involved in facilitating advancement.

Interestingly, at the mastery level they characterize the skill as “intuitive” and “absorbed” compared to “analytical” and “monitoring” in the novice phase. Notice that the words “intuitive” and “absorbed”, to a layperson, certainly corresponds to depictions of behaviors that are engrained in areas of the brain such as the basal ganglia – they are natural, “hardwired,” and consequently sustained unless and until some other pattern of behavior “over writes” it.

Depending on the situation, the person, and behavior, it is important to consider just how much repetition is required to move from self-conscious novice to embedded mastery, and to consider that if one’s current change management approach only goes as far novice or even competence, that it might not result in sustainable behavior changes.

The Dreyfus’ paper is found at:

2 Comments on “The Persistence of Behavior: the Role of Neuroscience in Change Management”

  1. ~Kohl says:

    thanks for this … definitely a good refresh on the definitions and nomenclature on the terms “expert” & “proficient”. Making sure we all have all “guidelines” while passing through the “competency” of a subject matter is what I am taking away from the attached …

  2. janet says:

    I agree with Kohl. Too often we get caught up in “delivering the message” through training or communication and miss the reality that true and successful change takes repetition, time and comfort level with the newly acquired skills. Training and communication are preparedness for future state but they are only the gateway to sustaining a process.

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