The Connection Between Learning and Behavioral Change

This is a companion piece to the article reviewing You Can Change Other People by Peter Bregman and Howie Jacobson. Check it out on THE LIST.

There are two parts to the process of developing a new skill: learning, and behavioral change.

In the functional approach to leadership, we address these together because they are both required to become a better leader. But today, I want to separate them so that you can see how each takes place, the barriers to completing each part, and the way that we minimize these barriers.

Learning is when we are exposed to a new idea or concept. Most learning – and nearly all useful learning – requires this idea or concept contain a behavior. This occurs in any of the three places to learn: structured learning, modeling, and trial-and-error. The overwhelming majority of behaviors to which we are exposed happen unconsciously. That is, we never notice that we see a behavioral option, we simply add it to the range of possible choices. This is why we become “like our parents” and why we encourage kids to play sports, to give two very specific examples.

However, our behavioral choices are limited by what we learn. If we haven’t been exposed to an idea, then we cannot possibly perform that specific behavior. (Side note: trial and error seem like an exception, though it is actually us creating options through logic and analysis.) We cannot change our behavior without something to change it “to” – a replacement behavior.

ReDefine facilitates learning with tools that allow you to recognize your existing behaviors and their consequences, see where those consequences don’t produce the desired effect in the group, and then seek out new options. The functional approach also helps by explaining all of the parts that we have to learn: not just the behavior, but the desired outcome (a point that You Can Change Other People discusses at length) and the appropriate situation to use the behavior. If we miss one or more of these elements, then we cannot use the behavior.

But learning is only half of the equation: the other half is behavioral change. Learning alone is just mental play, and behavioral change alone is limited to what we already know.

Behavioral change is hard. Learning is easy, by comparison – we feel good when we pick up a book or talk about how to do something well. But performing a behavior at the right moment is very difficult. We have practiced other behaviors, and so they come easily. Replacing something that is natural and comfortable requires we admit that we’re not succeeding (an uncomfortable point), deliberately planning a change (not as fun as reading a book), and then assessing our actions and their impact (an often-painful moment of self-awareness). And we have to do this over time, which requires dedication and ongoing self-awareness. With practice, a new behavior can become comfortable and easy, but the old behaviors will always linger in the background.

When You Can Change Other People talks about the shame of change, the authors point out one of these discomforts. And yes, change requires we admit our failures and therefore feel embarrassment or shame. But this is only one of the many steps required to change our behavior, and therefore his assessment that people want to change is misleading. That doesn’t mean that the authors' four powers are inaccurate; they work because they describe aspects of the learning/behavioral change process. And You Can Change Other People is a fantastic resource for every leader. There are just a few more things going on than what is described in that chapter of the book.

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