Guiding Organizational Transformation Through Behavior Change

Companies that undertake transformation—have to inspire their people to think and act differently.

Organizational change programs often focus on designing new solutions through process and workflow—with little regard for the people enacting them. 

When you change process, you are asking people to change their behavior.

Humans are naturally change adverse. We don’t like being told how to do our job. It’s not that leaders don’t understand what needs to happen to improve the organization, it’s that the people who are executing on the change need to buy into it on a fundamental level. 

For the organization to transform, people working within the organization need to grow beyond their current mindset. (We’ve always done it this way.) They need to understand the rationale for a change in the first place. (Oh, I see what you mean, that works better.)

People can be quite content with their current way of working (if they weren't, they would seek change on their own). If we can get someone to react more openly to the possibility of change, they might find some value in it.

Transformative change in an organization requires people in your organization to not only believe change is needed, but activating a motivating belief to want to change.

As people learn to adopt a new mindset that change is possible, new behaviors will form. Outcomes that in turn benefit not just the organization but the individual reenforce the behavior change. 

For the organization to shift, people within the organization have to change. It’s this symbiosis that builds and sustains transformation over the long term.

Ultimately, organizational performance success depends on persuading people to think differently about their job and what they do every day. To adopt new behaviors that can translate into reaching an organization’s business goals, we must embrace a learning and growth culture that permeates all levels of an organization.

A learning environment (re)introduces and supports the concepts of curiosity, contemplation, self-direction, and engaging the world from different perspectives. 

Behavioral change comes about differently for everyone, but we can set the stage by getting people to actively think about the need for positive change. When we encourage learning something new as part of every day work life, and see others reacting positively to change we get people motivated to think about the value of change.

When the organization empowers learning as a key tenet, it helps enable individuals to feel comfortable that personal growth in themselves is possible as part of the process or system change. When an individual is open to new growth and possibilities, the organization will in turn, have a better chance of creating a compelling case for organizational change. 

Social Learning

“Most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.” — Albert Bandura

Social learning theory tells us that people learn through observation, it can be watching others demonstrating the behavior, verbal instruction, through story-telling or watching media or engaging in play. A learning culture is not a set of on-line videos, it is an interactive experience that encourages experimentation and question making.

Culture change begins when leaders model the behavior they want the organization to emulate. 

This is why it is important to incorporate leaders, who will model the kinds of behaviors that they want to see through the organization, and reward those model the positive behavior change.

Reinforcement and our own mental state plays a big part in determining whether a behavior is learned or not and will stick. When a person changes their mindset, displays the changed behavior and is reinforced by their team, it not only furthers the group’s collective development but helps to connect what we learned with positive use.

Build learning programs that will support your transformation goals.

Successful transformation requires leadership to focus on getting inside the mind-sets of their staff to understand how attitudes evolve to enable the sort of broad-scale, fundamental change that’s necessary to deliver real organizational growth.

When an organization values learning, it is already on a path to breaking down the sources of an individual’s aversion to change. Change in behavior can be assisted by providing outside of typical work day experiences and situations to support new learning and new ways of working. 

Initiating a new behavior usually seems like the hardest part of the process of change. Yet, maintaining a new behavior is often the most challenging part of any behavior change. One of the reasons we often fail at long term change is because we mistakenly believe the strategies we used to initiate the change will be equally as effective in helping us continue the change. 

Ultimately, your organization has to think holistically about change and marry new processes and solutions to the new mindset to ensure transformation success and build a learning program that addresses key change resistance factors.

Individuals resist change by;

  • Selectively Processing Information — How do I seek solutions beyond what I know and not focus on problems?

  • Habit Enforcement — How can break them and establish new ones?

  • Being Fearful of the Unknown— How do I get over that feeling of losing power or control?

  • Feeling Insecure— How do I feel comfortable that change will still keep me in a job?

  • Not Valuing the Change— How do I build understanding for the rationale of the change?

It is not enough to just empower learning if we want to break down resistance to change— we must empower people to act on what they learned.

Empowering people leads to putting new behavioral learning into action

Empowering individuals means enabling people to not only participate in the planning of change but to be a source of it. When you enable people to learn and grow, the next step is to empower them to create change and adopt new ways of working, building on what they learned.

When you give employees autonomy and responsibility for decision-making in their daily work, it empowers employees to step up, make their own decisions, be accountable and pave their path to success. 

Focusing on process change alone limits organizational transformation.

It is more important for your employees to understand what to do in a situation and how they should act, rather than following a process blindly. 

When we make a change to one part of our process, it can often cause a crazy Rube Goldberg effect, causing all sorts of unintended and intended after effects down the line.

When we empower people, we permit them to engage with process differently—to learn how inputs can affect outputs in the system. When folks take time to learn about their work processes and potential new solutions, they can help optimize strategies for a wider set of situations. Deep process understanding leads to better solutions and a continual organizational improvement model. 

In this environment, there must be a willingness to have open and frank discussions about what separates great ideas from bad ones. There has to be feedback and trust. If you want to be innovative, you also need to let people explore boundaries and sometimes fail along the way.

Empowerment and Learning should be part of your organization’s DNA.

Empowerment building needs to be baked into your organization’s cultural. Building change with your people starts by incorporating them into the decision making process.

Empowering your people, incorporating behavioral change and building a learning environment can be major organizational shifts. These are shifts that are fundamental to transformational change. When they are boxed into a single program or are part of segmented initiatives they are susceptible to high failure rates.

If we want people to think and act differently in our organization, we need to incorporate them. 

Core Values & Social Systems: Shared Meaning Making

Core cultural values act as the underpinnings of decision making and help people understand what’s expected of them in the organization.

As a group these values/behavior sets let people know the right and wrong (accepted or frowned upon) way to behave in the organization. They identify not only what it means to be successful as an individual in the company, but guides what the organization considers successful as outcomes. 

Organizations are social systems made up of people that share a set of written and unspoken rules as well as a set of loosely shared philosophies that form the organization's culture and sub-cultures. 

A company’s leaders and people exist as individuals, but together, they exist in a larger interactive social system, where people and different groups interact with each other. Each member of a social group processes thoughts and interprets the world in a completely private manner, people develop a sense for the meaning of things in the world entirely on their terms.

Socialization helps us to organize and unify our thoughts to create shared meanings. When we can state a value, define it and point to it, we can help socialize the shared meaning to the larger group. A shared norm helps people to expect what the decision making of another person within the group will be.

Organizations change through new learning at this social system level — where we share insights, knowledge and our mental models (how we think about the world and our behavior choice) with each other. We push the organization to change by introducing new learning to model the behavior of others to ensure that people understand what’s expected of them in the common environment. We then use reinforcing measures to communicate shared meaning to sustain new behaviors. 

Incorporating Shared Meaning in Change Adoption

Change adoption means alignment between social groups within an organization. 

From an organizational perspective;

  • We design the change solution,

  • We identify what new behaviors will get us there,

  • We align the solution with role-modeling,

  • We ensure we have the skills to enact the change, 

  • We design ways of activating new behaviors,

  • We design ways of sustaining behaviors,

  • We learn from our change.

In addressing this path, the organization may need to address communication gaps or evolve cultural norms into its organizational value system. 

If we want people to modify their behavior, then an organization’s cultural values must be aligned to the change. For example, if a company states that they place value in “a work-life balance,” but does not create a social environment where this is true, they are less likely to see individuals modeling this behavior or being supportive of other shared values. 

Organizations need to follow through on building activities and processes based on their stated cultural values to enable true behavioral change. If the organization falls short in embodying a cultural value, people are less likely to adapt their behavior holistically to the social norms of the organization. If the organization states that they believe in a work-life balance as a value, then they need to support that value with activities that enable it.

Core Organizational Value Making 

Core value statements shape how everyone in the organization is expected to behave, what the organization as a whole place's value in, build shared meaning and act as a check to determine if the organization is on the right path. 

Processes and systems in the organization can then build around these principles to create a shared pattern of expected behavior.

Core values help define what matters and elicit specific behaviors in the organization. These values can encompass specifics such as; integrity, ethics, commitments, relationships, understandings, teamwork, respect, helping others, making a difference and accountability. They can be internal values that may relate to your agency's mission statement or they can incorporate tenets that are part of the external output of the organization.

When building core values they work best when they are specific, humanistic and compatible. Limit your organization’s principal set to around five in total. When you have too many stated corporate values, you risk an individuals ability to remember each criterion and evaluate output by it.

Core values are not just part of a static mission statement that never gets used. A core social value is only true if it has an active influence and if the people and the company manage to live by it. 

Remember, that individuals have core values too. They can be aligned with the organization or only partially aligned. What one person deems important, another may not. Misalignment of what’s important can greatly impact the organization.

Behavioral Change Success

Successfully implementation of behavioral change requires properly preparing for change, managing the process and institutionalizing new processes that support the behaviors. 

During these stages, facilitating change requires a strategic vision, clear consistent communication, open-mindedness and a commitment to defined goals on the individual level. 

While individuals and teams are ultimately the transformation factor, we can help our people engage in the change by facilitating change. 

Set processes tell us how we act in specific instances. Process creates a framework for how we manage projects and teams with specific inputs and intended outputs. Behavior change addresses the way we work. 

When we make changes to the way we work, we must be sensitive to the individual. We adopt change by being empathetic to others and addressing a person’s will to change. “Will,” refers to the motivational and emotional aspects of behavior change. We must be patient, encouraging and recognize and reward progress. 

People may have a will to change but may not know how to change. We address this by examining if the individual has the knowledge, skill or capacity to change. Then we create a plan to break down this barrier for the individual. 

We also make sure everyone in the organization has come to terms with the “new shared norms," and has an understanding of their roles and a true willingness to accept personal responsibility for maintaining the shift.

Behavioral change is hard work, but the pay-off is transformational to the organization.


Setting a business change strategy means setting a people change strategy. To help enact big change there are two key components; creating an environment for learning to build openness to change, and creating an environment where people feel empowered to organically follow through on delivering organizational change goal.

Corporate values when developed into activities can help shape shared meaning and understanding between the people that work within the larger system. They also help develop what the meaning of success looks like in the organization and the criteria in which it is based. 

If people believe in a company's overall purpose, they will be more open to changing their behavior to serve that purpose.

Leadership can play a huge part in being role models for change, to inspire their people to think and act differently. 

Change requires a mindset shift to go from one way of working to another to achieve new goals. Behavioral shifts require observation learning and modeling. 

Leadership can help build reinforcement systems to promote the building of innovative cultures.

Lastly, process change and behavioral change go hand-in-hand. To change the way people work, we not only need to make sure there is a will to change but we may need to give people the skills, learning and space required to change. 


Ed Burgoyne is the founder of Makr Consulting an organizational development firm that specializes in creative organizations.

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