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. 

Humans are naturally change adverse. We don’t like being told how to do our job. It’s not that management doesn’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. They need to understand the rationale for a change in the first place. 

As people learn to adopt new thinking, new behaviors form so they can achieve outcomes that in turn benefit the organization. For the organization to change, 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 help our people to adopt new behaviors that can translate into an organization’s business goals, we need to first set an important cultural value within the organization— we must embrace a learning and growth culture.

A learning environment (re)introduces and supports the concepts of curiosity, self-direction, engaging the world from different perspectives, and helps to motivate & encourage learning something new as part of every day work life.

When the organization empowers learning as a key tenet, it enables individuals to feel comfortable that personal growth in themselves is possible. When a person is open to new growth and possibilities, the organization will in turn, have a better chance of creating a compelling case for 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.

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 who will also provide recognition and reward those who model the positive behavior change. 

Reinforcement and our own mental state plays a big part in determining whether a behavior is learned or not. 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 organization and understanding how attitudes need to 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 is assisted by providing outside of typical work day experiences and situations. 

Ultimately, your organization has to think holistically about change and marry new processes and solutions to the new mindset to ensure transformation success. 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 behaviors, building on what they learned.

When you give employees a certain degree of 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. To keep things on track, leadership has to continue to model new behaviors, reinforce concepts and reward positive change.

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 the process differently—to learn how inputs 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 a learning environment, there must be a willingness to have open and frank discussions about what separates great ideas from bad ones. 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.

To be successful, empowerment building needs to be baked into your organization’s cultural value set. Building new mind-sets with employees starts by incorporating them into your company’s culture as well as adopting it as a baseline corporate value and success measurement factor.

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 the values into the company foundation, so they can be used by leadership to help guide the organization's strategy, to align and map out the key beliefs and new behaviors that will be modeled for transformational success.

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

Core Values & Social Systems: Shared Meaning Making

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. 

The quality of organizational learning can be affected by a wide matrix of variables (systems within systems) the number of sub-groups and how they interact with each other to differences in management styles between them to the diversity of its people to the value they place on activities to different existing cultural norms in subgroups to the quality of individual interactions. 

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. 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 behavior that matches this value. 

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 on integrity, ethics, commitments, relationships, understandings, teamwork, respect, and accountability. They can be internal values, that may relate to your agency's mission statement or they can incorporate tenets that you want others to know about you externally.

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

Core values are not just part of a static mission statement. A core value is only true if it has an active influence and if the people and company manage to live by it, at least most of the time. They are part of how you would hire, who you hire and how you evaluate employees.

It is very important to 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.

Behavioral Change Success

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

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

Changing process can look easy on a flow chart, but asking folks to enact them and behave differently—is not.

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.