Facing a truth that may hurt

– Changing attitudes will not change behaviours.

12 April 2021

All too often, we think that great communication will change attitudes. Just think about strategy implementations in a private or public organisation. While management often acknowledges that communication is crucial to the success of implementing organisational change, an inconvenient truth continues to haunt change projects.

Great communication will not change attitudes – but behaviour will

Your odds of a successful implementation of change will surely increase if you have a well thought out communication plan designed to prepare and engage your organisation in the change from the point of departure. Without the plan, chances are that the desired change the project was set up to entail is doomed before it ever stood a chance to succeed.

However, the inconvenient truth is that no matter how effectively you have designed your communication plan, it will never change how employees behave. It is a fallacious objective.

Therefore, beware of believing that you can change behaviour by first changing attitudes. Because the fact is that attitudes tend to be the result of behaviour – not the cause of it.

Communication plays a vital role – but after a change initiative is released

Back in 1957, psychologist Leon Festinger showed how people justify their actions by changing their beliefs (A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance*). In the context of strategy implementation, change communication plays a vital role by reinforcing a new pattern of attitudes after a new strategy is re-leased.

We know that good communication creates a buzz. It starts conversations, and it filters into our workplace and life. And as humans, we are curious. We start to wonder and discuss with colleagues and even more colleagues about the things communicated: How did they perceive the communication? Did they understand the changes in the new strategy as you yourself did?

And here is an important point: conversations influence how we think and thus influence our behaviour. Suddenly, we start to have conversations we otherwise normally would not have. We are discussing back and forth on the new strategy and the implications of what will be required of everyone in the organisation to realise the new strategy. This conversational behaviour itself will lead to a pattern of new attitudes – be it pro or against the new strategy. In other words: the implementation has started.

Changing habits to achieve a successful strategy implementation

Unarguably, change most often requires engagement from everyone in the organisation, but somehow this conviction has led to an overshadowing focus on change resistance when implementing strategies, removing focus from other possible aspects that might be even more important when seeking to achieve a successful strategy implementation.

"A study shows that the chance of creating engagement rises by up to 73% if management focuses on employee strengths, and that they can potentially strengthen an entire organisation’s overall engagement and productivity." Rath & Conchie, 2008.

The study concludes that when building engagement and driving organisational change, it is more effective to optimise the organisation’s strengths than to point to resistance. More concretely, the study argues that in order to optimise the implementation of a new strategy, the management should prioritise to focus on the habits that need to change in order for the new strategy to be implemented and changes to happen.

According to a study on the neuroscience-based learning process (Ellington & McFadden, 2013*), you can work with changing habits through a process that consists of the following five phases:

A process for working with changing habits consists of these five phases

Create engagement

Creating a state of engagement is the foundation for helping others to change unwanted habits. This state of engagement is also known as a “toward” state. The “toward” state sets the stage for reflection on what is getting in the way, making new connections and accessing novel solutions to problems.

This phase is about making the people in the organisation actually want the change and making them reflect on what they need to change to support this.

Offer insights

Offering insights is about helping people hear those quiet signals referred to as “aha” moments. This is at the heart of personal learning and innovation. It is very different from telling someone what to do or giving them advice, which can induce a threat state and create unnecessary noise in the brain.

People need to feel the change in order to start desiring it. Something has to shift in their heart and/or mind to fuel the effort it takes to change for good. Providing insights that ignite new perspectives can do just this.

Break unwanted patterns

Without actions taken, insights are not very useful. A leader helps others to hold their attention on new ways of thinking and being by taking new and timely action. However, breaking unwanted patterns of behaviour does not require big action. Small steps can just as easily form new habits.

Therefore, you should break down the unwanted patterns into manageable steps that are easier to effectuate – accompanied by a focus on small successful experiences to drive motivation.

Evaluate and adapt strengths

To track progress and ensure self-accountability, it is essential that you do ongoing follow-up to identify and acknowledge the learning that comes from taking action. New action that follows insight provides opportunity for learning, which leads to more reflection and additional insights.

Establish new behaviour

For sustainable change to occur, you need to reinforce the new habits of behaviour. You must be persistent, giving continuous and repeated attention to the desired change as this strengthens the hard-wiring of the newly created habits. Therefore, when you implement a new strategy, it is worth following the process because, sadly, not doing so is unpromising.


*Festinger, L. (1957): A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Stanford University Press, CA: Stanford

* Ellington, L. & McFadden, P. (2013). “The Neuroscience of Leading Change by Creating New Habits”. Retrieved 2 August 2016 from: http://www.neuroleader. us/2013/07/02/how-to-lead-change-by-creating-newhabits

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