rooted behaviour change

“The first revolution is when you change your mind about how you look at things and see that there might be another way to look at it that you have not been shown.” – Gil Scott-Heron

We cannot manage stress without changing behaviour. People often have maladaptive, habitual responses to work stress. We want to encourage adaptive responses, and this requires a change of action. That is why rooted behaviour change holds together any long term stress management program.

Making temporary changes to behaviour is relatively easy. However, rooted behaviour change is much more difficult and is rarely accomplished successfully.

These five components mediate rooting:

1. Motives: Motivation is necessary but not sufficient for rooting.

2. Self-regulation: The ability to monitor and regulate one’s action as not to uproot the new behaviour.

3. Resources: Physical resources such as money and space; psychological resources such as emotional support and freedom.

4. Habits: Habits are automatic responses to environmental cues. Self-regulation drains physical and psychological resources. Habits consume less resources.

5. Environment: Especially social environment.


Dual Duelling Systems

Some people have the idea that humans always act in their rational self interests, that we are always perfectly capable of figuring out what is valuable and acting accordingly. This is the basis of rational agent theory which is still popular amongst economists. Cognitive scientists understand that this view of human behaviour is mythological. It’s clear that people do not always act out of rational self interest. Very often, people will behave in ways that do not reflect their values or long term goals because behaviour is determined by a varied and chaotic set of factors that produce nonlinear and emergent effects.

If you have ever found yourself arguing with your impulses then you already intuitively understand what cognitive scientists have proven only recently: the brain works like two distinct but connected systems. This is not the right-hemisphere, left-hemisphere dichotomy that you are already familiar with. The two systems are the Thoughtful System (TS) and the Instinctive System (IS). The last time you were on a diet and had an internal debate over whether or not to buy a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, it was these two systems that were fighting. The instinctive system typically wins and I’m going to explain why.

Both systems work in parallel. The instinctive system is constantly processing information and the thoughtful system usually lies dormant. Information that comes through the sense lens will always be processed by the instinctual system first and will only be processed by the thoughtful system if the instinctive system flags it as important. The impact of received information depends upon the past entrainment of one’s instinctive system. Depending on the importance ascribed by the instinctive system, information will receive a valenced significance score (SigScore). If a certain piece of information receives a high enough SigScore from the instinctive system, it will be brought to the notice of the thoughtful system. Sensory information related to goals and survival are of primary significance.


Deepening Roots

Behavioural rooting is the most important element of behaviour change. You can start with the best intentions to change behaviour but maintaining a new behaviour requires resilient rooting.

The action that germinated the behaviour change seed is not the same action that will build strong stable roots. The inspirational effect of  transforming potential into action has diminished force as time goes on.

Rooted behaviour repeats across many different areas of life, becoming the dominant response in a variety of contexts.

People like to make changes when the opportunity costs are low. Opportunity costs will regress to the mean and the load on willpower increases with costs.


Behaviour Rooting Checklist

1. Long-term motivation strategy.

2. Willpower support.

3. Habit development strategy.

4. Psychological resource management strategy.

5. Work environment design at the individual, social and organisational level.


Motivating Performance Improvement

Performance improvement is married to behaviour change. For managers to respond a new ways to occupational cues, it is important to develop short-term intrinsic motivation. Long-term considerations inspire change, but behavioural rooting is the result of repeated short-term reinforcement. Managers may rationally and logically agree to a change, but they stick for emotional reasons.

An immediate, short-term change in behaviour can be inspired extrinsically. However, only intrinsic motivation roots a new behaviour in the long term. Furthermore, a new behaviour is more likely to be rooted if it aligns with a valued goal.

Intrinsic motivation for a new behaviour develops gradually with repetition over time. Do not be surprised if, when a behaviour is only repeated a few times, it doesn’t stick. It takes much more time for new patterns of behaviour to become rooted, especially in a business setting.



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