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How Great Leaders Drive Behavior Change That Lasts

How Great Leaders Drive Behavior Change That Lasts

Leadership and workplace agility expert Christine Comaford explains how leaders can change their behavior by creating new habits and gaining new skills to become more effective.

In my last blog we learned how a leader shut down when she received feedback. Now we’re going to show how she changed her behavior.

When we use the tools to establish new habit patterns, we gain potent new capabilities. These capabilities, or skills, help us to choose more empowering and emotionally agile behaviors. First, let’s make sure that we understand the neurolinguistic structure of human experience and how repetitive and habitual behaviors and responses work.

Formula for the Structure of Human Experience

How do our beliefs and our identity actually translate into everyday behavior? We do what we believe we can do based on beliefs about external conditions and internal conditions. Our beliefs about our internal conditions equal our identity. An external trigger generates an internal positive or negative kinesthetic response (K+ or K−), which generates or reminds us of a belief (often outside of our awareness), which leads to a behavioral routine (the post-trigger behavior sequence to manage the K+ or K−) that results in a reward (a better K). The reward might be that a negative feeling stops or decreases (think about reaching for that cookie you don’t need), or it might be something we really do want (the job is done well). We’ll unpack this sequence further in our example with Andrea.

VAK Anchoring: Increasing Our Behavior Options by Adding Better Choices

We know that people will always choose the best feeling available. If there isn’t a good feeling (K+) available, people will choose the behavior with the least bad K. When people do something that appears to be painful, it’s actually the best option available. Choices with better feelings aren’t “on the menu” for the situation.

How do we expand our menu of choices? Let’s take a deeper look at Andrea’s example. Andrea wanted to respond from choice, versus reacting, when people at her firm changed her product plans. Let’s unpack the structure of Andrea’s experience first, and then use metacognition (thinking about thinking) to map out a new behavior choice.

Here’s what used to happen.


Andrea’s plan or expected result is changed by others at her organization. In neuro-shorthand this might look something like this: External V of seeing e-mail stating changes + internal As of self-talk stating “My work is not valuable” = leads to K− of disappointment.


Andrea feels disappointed, runs more internal Vs (visuals) and As (auditory soundtracks), which causes her to feel powerless, which spirals into feeling helpless (more Vs and As outside of her awareness generating more K−s), propelling her into self-talk of “I’m useless”—so she gives up, and numbs the K− (her choice for the best K available). She has shut down.


This behavior reinforces a recurring pattern in Andrea’s life, she is actually invested in continuing it since it has shaped her identity. She knows she can survive. The reward is she gets to stay safe, withdraw, and not take responsibility.

Routines and rewards don’t always feel good, but they feel familiar to our creature neurology (our reptilian + mammalian brain combo). That’s why we repeat them. They are the best feeling option we have available once the trigger event has occurred.

Internal triggers are hard enough, but when the triggers are outside of us, they feel out of our control, even though we get to choose to respond. The key is learning how to slow down. In my next blog, we’ll look at the new behavior we created for Andrea.

What is the trigger, routine, reward for a behavior you have?

Christine Comaford is a Leadership and Workplace Agility Expert. She is the author of Power Your Tribe: Create Resilient Teams in Turbulent Times and SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together. The potent neuroscience techniques she teaches are immediately applicable to help leaders expand their vision and more effectively influence outcomes.


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