Making the Big Behaviour Breakthrough

Man standing on mountain

Changing how things get done can be a powerful performance-enhancing tool. But achieving desirable shifts in habits and routines can be extremely tricky, even baffling. Part of the problem involves a lack of understanding of what makes some good ideas and innovations catch on like wildfire, while others struggle to gain traction. When trying to understand this, it is useful to examine the history of certain medical breakthroughs.

As noted in “Slow Ideas,” a 2013 New Yorker article by Atul Gawande, the use of anesthesia caught on fast in 1846, after surgeon Henry Jacob Bigelow published a report on the “insensibility produced by inhalation” in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. In a matter of months, anesthesia was being used to eliminate pain during operations around the world. The widespread adoption of disinfection, however, took much longer. In the 1860s, after learning about Louis Pasteur’s conclusion that spoiling and fermentation were caused by microorganisms, Edinburgh surgeon Joseph Lister published an article describing how the use of carbolic acid to clean surgical hands and patient wounds resulted in significantly lower rates of sepsis, which was the single biggest killer of surgical patients at the time. But as Gawande writes, “It was a generation before Lister’s recommendations became routine.”

Technically speaking, adopting antiseptics was just as easy as adopting anesthesia. And doctors had a strong economic incentive to change behaviour in both cases. In fact, the economic incentive to adopt Lister’s innovation was probably greater. After all, as Gawande wryly put it, “Live patients were more likely to make good on their surgery bill.” So why did the medical profession rush to put patients under, but not to keep them safe from germs? Well before anesthesia, pain was a clear issue for surgeons. Relatively simple operations resembled torture, which is why doctors often needed multiple attendants just to hold patients down. The benefits of using antiseptics, on the other hand, were less tangible. Antiseptics didn’t produce a manifestly better work experience for doctors. In fact, using carbolic acid to clean hands caused an unpleasant burning sensation. Simply put, the adoption of antiseptics took a long time because germs were not a clearly visible issue and ensuring a germ-free operating environment required doctors to strictly follow a number of new behaviour protocols. And the willingness to follow those protocols didn’t spread until doctors recast themselves as scientists during the early 20th century, when operating rooms became sterile environments akin to laboratories.

Gawande’s insightful article focused on the challenges of achieving behavioural changes in the world of health care in general, where history clearly shows that many really good ideas need more than awareness to gain traction. This article addresses a specific barrier to achieving returns on investments aimed at changing behaviour in the workplace, where a leadership blind spot has too many organizations attempting to improve performance via long-term behavioural changes while neglecting what it takes to really make behaviour change happen.


A 2008 Harvard Business Review survey involving 125,000 participants at companies in more than 50 countries found that three out of every five companies surveyed rated their organizations as weak at execution. This sounds shocking. But understanding why so many managers have such little faith in their organizations’ ability to execute strategies isn’t hard if you look in the right place.

Superior execution requires more than just having superior strategy, superior processes and superior technology. Achieving any of these three things on their own isn’t enough to get things done right. Nailing all three at the same time also won’t suffice, at least not without achieving something else. To perform well over the long term, you need something basic and seemingly ordinary — appropriate behaviour. As a result, if you are seeking improved results, you need to focus on importing new behaviours. It’s that simple — and that difficult. And that’s why understanding how and why people do what they do is just as vital in the business world as it is in medicine.

When Aristotle famously said, “Well begun is half done,” he clearly wasn’t talking about strategic corporate initiatives aimed at achieving new performance. Indeed, think about how many organizational initiatives never actually take root, even though the benefits seem clear to all concerned. One market-leading insurance company that we know painstakingly analyzed the best practices of its highest-performing salespeople. It then held dozens of meetings to spread those behaviours throughout the company’s sales force. Nothing happened. Some salespeople attempted a few of the best practices, but not consistently, not completely, and not for very long.

Sound familiar? It should. The numbers vary, but research shows that most strategic initiatives fail to achieve their goals (as defined by the executives that sponsor them), leaving a good proportion of potential returns on the table. In fact, whether you realize it or not, there is a very good chance that your organization is dramatically underperforming right now, purely because leaders at multiple levels are failing to proactively encourage desired behaviours and discourage undesired ones.

Influencing behaviour change isn’t easy, which is why many hospitals today still have trouble getting doctors to wash their hands. That’s true even with diseases like Ebola posing threats. Like doctors, managers and line workers alike resist change. Nevertheless, importing new behaviours into your organization can prove more useful and more conducive to achieving an energized work environment than any strategy or process you might embrace. And it can yield results that seem incredible, even unbelievable. Unfortunately, too many leaders fail to see the link between influencing behaviour and improving execution.

Nearly all CEOs today invest in leadership. And yet, after decades of sustained research on the topic, these investments typically lead to questionable results rather than clearly improved levels of leadership. As The Conference Board put it in 2008, “The study and practice of leadership and leadership development continues to be a work in progress, albeit one that shows frustratingly little progress.” Why? In many cases, leaders simply don’t see the significant value lost when employees fail to adopt desired behaviours or choose to adopt them incompletely. Despite all that’s been said about the importance of behaviour in recent years, most executives continue to dismiss it as “soft stuff.”

In 2006, for example, a group of 30 Irish CEOs at a government-sponsored executive education program were asked to list topics covered by the course that they felt would help them gain significant competitive advantage. The only two topics that made the lists of all 30 participants were leadership and culture. But there was an audible gasp when that fact was announced because the CEOs in question assumed “hard” topics like strategy would be the most common topics identified as being important to the bottom line.

The tendency to underestimate the importance of the so-called soft stuff isn’t limited to Ireland. It is a global issue that leads to a staggering amount of wasted time and money, especially when behaviour is the soft stuff being underestimated. Executives seeking to improve field sales performance, for instance, will often invest in hiring new salespeople or will approve a budget to design a new field sales compensation system. But aside from offering a quick training course or two, they generally don’t put any time or money into emphasizing the critical things that underperforming field sales managers can do differently to improve results, including adopting the identifiable behaviours that separate top performers from the pack.

When it comes to what executives think matters most to the bottom line, it is clearly time for some attitude adjustments. A 2013 study of over 600 executives performed by The Conference Board and Right Management found that about 40 per cent of leaders “are either marginally prepared or not prepared at all to take on the business challenges of the next few years.” Among the greatest challenges leaders faced was “engaging and motivating top talent,” a task that hinges on the ability to shape behaviour. A 2012 Corporate Leadership Council (CLC) study that examined the skills and performance of 11,500 global leaders at 35 organizations found that influencing others was the competency that most determined whether an executive would be a great leader. But the ability to influence was also found to be the one area in which leaders were least effective. As the study noted, “Influence is consistently one of the skills that leaders struggle with the most, ranking at or near the bottom of the table in each geographic region.”

Unfortunately, even when leaders do recognize their weaknesses in shaping new behaviour, they don’t improve unless they apply conscious effort and real discipline. Nobody does. A memorable Fast Company article titled “Change or Die” recounted a talk given at the Rockefeller medical research centre by Dr. Edward Miller, Dean of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and hospital CEO. In it, he noted that a stunning 90 per cent of coronary bypass patients failed to stick with diet and exercise regimens designed to prevent the need for another round of very painful surgery.

In the workplace, where bad behaviour doesn’t typically put one at risk of a heart attack, people choose to do something that goes against what is known as desirable behaviour all the time. In fact, it happens so often that it frequently escapes notice.


French novelist Marcel Proust once observed, “The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Business leaders should think about that line as they ponder why they accept the significant costs that stem from neglecting behaviour in their organizations.

Over the past century, an entire discipline has arisen to study and explain behaviour — why we do what we do or say what we say, why we fail to act or don’t say something we should. This behavioural science has the same properties as chemistry and biology: careful observation, data collection, replicability, measurability, laws and so on. And its findings have allowed us to build the related field of applied behaviour analysis (ABA), which has developed proven tools that can improve the performance of leaders, organizations and employees. The disciplined use of these tools is called behavioural leadership, which underpins a reliable, replicable technology for managing behaviour and implementing change.

Applied behavioural science and the behavioural leadership discipline can help organizations achieve sustainable results in part because they allow leaders to reassess their own vexing business challenges with new eyes. This new insight drives new action and new results.

Keep in mind that when trying to frame behaviour change, organizations typically pay most attention to the triggers or antecedents of behaviour change. For example, workers found to be taking shortcuts instead of following standard operating procedures are often sent for training — a well-meaning and traditional antecedent to achieve desired behaviour. But training frequently fails to achieve the desired behaviour shift. One reason for this, which has been validated by our own experience with Fortune 100 companies, is that antecedents have limited impact on behaviour change if the desired action is not supported by encouraging, timely, important and probable consequences. In other words, when training isn’t supported by a personal reason to change behaviour, employees will continue to take shortcuts when following orders to the letter makes a task harder to complete, especially when they are being judged on speed and not attention to procedure.

Ideas don’t win the day strictly on their merit. Indeed, as the history of medicine makes clear, some high-impact behaviours simply aren’t going to change when requested. To get physicians to wash their hands, countless hospitals have implemented a range of solutions for bolstering consistency, ranging from slogans and signs to strategically placed gel dispensers and offers of prizes such as free movie tickets to departments with the best compliance. Even the Hippocratic Oath, which requires doctors to prevent harm, is deployed as a means to convince more doctors to regularly wash their hands. Despite these well-meaning attempts to change behaviour, studies show that hand-washing compliance rates are typically at least one-third of what they need to be — a finding that is both perplexing and unnerving. From an ABA perspective, attending to the consequences of this behaviour is the key to understanding and overcoming this challenge.

As the New York Times reported in 2013, Long Island’s North Shore University Hospital began to quickly update health care providers with feedback reports on their actual hand-washing performance. Hand-washing rates in its intensive care unit increased from 10 per cent to 88 per cent. At Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, lapel pins were awarded to strong hand-washers, giving them a visible nod of approval. According to the hospital’s chief of infection prevention, positive reinforcement worked better than verbal warnings or other metaphorical slaps on the wrist. One hospital in Pittsburgh gained positive results via the unthinkable — nurses were encouraged to tell doctors when they failed to follow prescribed hand-washing procedures.

Simply put, to influence behaviour change, antecedents must be paired with strong consequences. And when you understand this, you can see (with Proust’s new eyes) just how much time and money invested in planning, communications and training is wasted by failing to also set up effective consequences designed to sustain the behavioural changes required to meet your goals. And this is just one ABA tool. Behavioural leaders possess a whole slew of scientifically validated tools and concepts, the application of which often makes for dramatically different ways of allocating resources and pursuing strategies.


The widespread neglect of behaviour in organizations creates a tremendous opportunity for transformative business leaders — those elite few who are willing to invest the time, focus and energy to do something new to achieve something great.

Behaviour change isn’t instant or effortless. The process isn’t flashy and doesn’t typically capture headlines like other advances such as nanotechnology. But the transformation afforded by behavioural leadership is no less sustainable or lasting for being quiet. In fact, practitioners are not eager to publicize results precisely because, as one senior leader put it, “This really, really works!” In other words, for a growing number of companies, the fact that behavioural leadership is flying below the radar is part of its appeal.

In our work, we have seen the following results achieved via behavioural breakthroughs:

  • A Fortune 500 health care insurer obtained a 438 per cent return on investment while also dramatically improving employee engagement numbers and customer service rankings — in just 18 months — by shifting from “production first” to “customer first” behaviours.
  • In nine months, a third-world refinery owned by a major petrochemical company achieved a 70 per cent reduction in environmental incidents, along with a 50 per cent increase in production and a 75 per cent jump in employee commitment, by shifting from “heroic effort” behaviours to “prevention through problem surveillance” behaviours.
  • An industrial company reduced costs by $500 million.
  • A mining operator cut costs by $400 million, while also improving safety by 200 per cent, through shifting from behaviours associated with “working hard” to behaviours associated with “ownership and accountability.” This yielded a 30:1 return on investment.
  • A leading pharmaceutical company saw $500 million in increased productivity at one of its plants thanks to behavioural changes that drove significant improvements in production error prevention and line change over time.

Behavioural leadership, of course, isn’t just for organizations in obvious need of changing how things are done. It can significantly enhance performance in organizations even when they are running at what appears to be the top of their game.

Consider what happened at a global chemical company’s top-performing plant. While the plant’s team was working to build behavioural leadership into its operations, corporate announced an immediate 10 per cent cost-reduction mandate. Turning to the numbers, the plant manager advocated one area for improvement: reducing costly unplanned shutdowns. Plant leadership implemented a plan to change just three high-impact behaviours. First, every person in operations and maintenance on every shift inspected designated areas visually, aurally and tactilely for equipment abnormalities. Second, they recorded what they observed. Third, they reported any suspected problems to the appropriate people. By year’s end, despite 30 years of steady progress toward reducing unplanned shutdowns, the plant further decreased the rate of unplanned shutdowns by an astonishing 75 per cent. That alone was worth about $50 million in annualized savings, but when scaled across the company’s nearly two-dozen additional plants the behaviour breakthrough was even more significant.

Rigorous statistical testing has confirmed that the results discussed above can be attributed exclusively to behaviour change. Hopefully, these results can help you appreciate just how much paying attention to behaviour can pay off. After all, in effect, the decades-old science of behaviour has the potential to trigger a quiet revolution in companies that apply it. Though subtle, behavioural leadership is a catalyst for profound new insight that drives new action and new results.


In the years ahead, we firmly believe that competitive advantage in any industry or geography will flow as much from behavioural leadership as from new strategies, processes or technologies. In fact, we argue that behavioural leadership is required to fully realize the potential returns offered by any existing or new strategies, processes and technologies because it reduces the hidden human barriers that so often scuttle successful implementations.

Furthermore, in a global business environment, disciplined attention to behaviour will help businesses solve and avoid disruptive cultural clashes. As more businesses turn to innovation as a path to growth, a focus on behaviour will help companies embed deep cultures of creativity and openness across their organizational levels and regions, enabling innovation to persist over time.

When you finish reading this article, ask yourself if you are an innovative leader who seeks competitive advantage that cannot be easily replicated. Are you a game-changer who does things beyond the norm in order to achieve things beyond the norm? Do you value substance over flash? To gain results, are you comfortable pushing into your discomfort zone?

If you answer yes to these questions, then think about how deliberately your organization manages behaviour. Do you see it as a core organizational competency? Do you systematically prioritize and manage behaviour change with the same emphasis that you place on strategy, process and technology? Do you even know the potential upside to be gained from applying behavioural leadership to specific behaviour change initiatives designed for your organization?

It has been 150 years since the invention of antiseptics — and if you don’t pay special attention to what really influences behaviours in your organization, it might take that long to effect targeted positive changes in your business. Indeed, attention to the science of behaviour will determine whether your next change initiative has an outcome akin to the adoption of anesthesia or to the adoption of antiseptics. It’s up to you to make the commitment and rise to the challenge. The best leaders aren’t the best because of what they say or who they are. They’re the best because of what they do — and because of what they help others around them do as well.

About the Author

Steve Jacobs is Senior Advisor, CLG. For decades, Jacobs has advised senior executives on achieving new performance, culture change, and lasting competitive advantage. He is the author of several….Read Steve Jacobs's full bio

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Mona Malone is Regional Vice President, Personal Banking, Central Toronto, Bank of Montreal. Malone has been an invited speaker, keynote presenter and panelist at key events throughout the United….
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Les Dakens is a Board Director to a number of organizations and an Executive Advisor for CLG (HQ Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) and CLG Canada (Toronto, Ontario). Dakens is a recognized leader in….
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Carolina Aguilera, PhD, is a Principal at CLG, where as an expert in the behavioural implications of large-scale organizational change she has helped companies successfully implement major change….
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