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Manager talking with coworkers

6 strategies for leading change

How behavioral science can help you become a transformational leader

Published Date: Oct 17, 2023
Manager talking with coworkers

Behavioral science is a big part of what we do here at Hinge Health. Our certified health coaches draw on it every day to help determine what psychological, social, environmental, and other such factors may be helping fuel members’ pain and derail attempts to stick with healthy habits that can help manage it.

That’s incredibly helpful to our members, since pain needs to be addressed from all angles—not just the physical one. But the science behind behavior change can help you when it comes to leading change in your own organization, too.

It’s not uncommon for leaders to point to what or who they want to change. But that’s often why things stay exactly the same.

Valerie Black, former senior director of behavioral science at Hinge Health, has been helping people and organizations adopt healthy behaviors and shed those no longer working for them for 25 years. In that time, she says, she has come to know one truth:

“There's only one corner of the universe that you can be certain of improving, and that's your own self.” The ripple effect starts from there.

Whether you’re about to embark on evolving your workplace in some way or have hit a wall doing so, harness the power of behavioral science by using these strategies to be—and influence—positive change.

Remember that everyone is connected

People are connected like an infinity loop. What one person does affects another, and vice versa.

For example, if you choose to stay up late the night before a training presentation and are low-energy when delivering it, those listening to you may not engage with what you are saying. And if they choose to doodle on the agenda instead of listening to you, you may not be successful in getting them to understand the material you’re covering.

Change is collaborative and relational. When you change, you actually change the whole system.

It can sometimes be hard to see how much we impact each other in the workplace, which can be a vast system with many different inputs. It may be easier to put this reality of behavior into perspective if you think about all of the “mini-cultures” that you are a part of—your after-work exercise group, your book club, and so on.

Bolster your own vitality

Change is coming into being and shedding things. It’s growth and rebirth. And the fuel for that is vitality.

The main ingredients of vitality are simple, but critical: Breathing, moving, hydrating, eating, connecting, and sleeping.

Think about which of these areas needs tending to and which ones are going well. This might seem self-serving, but these are the building blocks upon which everything else works.

It is only when you are nourished in these ways that you are equipped to model, and then affect, change in others.

Use habit hacks

Our culture reinforces that self-discipline and willpower are the keys to effective habit change. We know from research that sustaining change comes down to repetition—doing something over and over again so that it sets a pattern in the brain.

With this in mind, you can help make helpful behaviors habits by:

  • Habit stacking Take a habit that you already have and add the new behavior you want to stick to that. For example, if you routinely go over your top three priorities for each employee in their weekly check-in, but want to make sure you’re doing a better job of checking in on their needs, institute a “3 for 3”: Review your three items, then immediately ask your colleague to share the top three things they want to discuss with you.

  • Habit replacement For example, if you have a tendency to focus on issues that need to be solved, but want to foster a more positivity-minded work environment, start referring to “problems” as “opportunities.” Maybe your company’s shipping times are starting to slip. This is a problem, yes. But it is also an opportunity to better serve your customers and live up to your company promises.

Better navigate the ‘valley of disappointment’

This behavioral science term speaks to the feeling many have when they start (or re-start) a behavior, but don’t see the impact for a while.

I’m bad at this. This will never work the way I want it to.

That’s not the case.

We expect progress to be linear, but that’s not how the brain works. It needs time to build a groove. It’s a waiting game, and remembering that can help you avoid points where you might simply want to give up.

Take the long view and just keep going.

Embrace small wins

The phrase “nothing breeds success like success” is true—even at the cellular level.

One small win sets off a hit of dopamine, one of the brain’s primary reward chemicals, that leads to craving more wins—but only if it’s acknowledged.

Every time a behavior is repeated and recognized, you're harnessing the power of dopamine. 

Looking for ways to acknowledge your small wins isn’t weak. It's one of the most savvy things that you can do to establish new, positive habits in yourself and others.

Expect setbacks

Old habits die hard isn’t just a saying. It’s a neurobiological fact.

The last gasps of a dying behavior are actually an observable behavioral phenomenon called an extinction burst. Your mind is a habit creating machine. It loves acquiring new patterns, and it holds on to any of those old patterns that you acquired a long time ago—even if you’re not still expressing them today.

The brain is always either making new patterns, deepening the grooves that are already there, or standing down the grooves that it no longer uses. In the latter respect, sometimes it wins and sometimes it loses.

Relapses happen to all brains. It's just part of the remapping process. The important thing is to get back with your new habit and keep repeating it.

Black talked more about this at the Movement 2023 conference in Chicago. View her session in its entirety here:

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