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Leadership and How to Avoid the “That’s How We Do Things Here” Mindset

April 3, 2011

Updated February 29, 2012

One of the best business e-magazines is Strategy & Business (from Booz & Company). I’ve been a subscriber for several years and remain impressed with its eclectic range of topics. I frequently used S&B when I was doing innovation policy work in the public sector, and continue to benefit from this e-magazine’s insight as a leadership consultant.

Today I want to share with you an outstanding article that deals with corporate culture and change. Entitled That’s the Way We (Used to) Do Things Around Here, it’s co-authored by three experts with diverse backgrounds:

Jeffrey Schwartz is a research psychiatrist at the School of Medicine, University of California (Los Angelos);

Pablo Gaito is the VP of learning and development at Cargill (a firm with diverse holdings in agri-food, financial and industrial products);

Doug Lennick is an author (e.g., Financial Intelligence) and an advisor to Ameriprise Financial and a former executive VP at American Express.

I encourage you to read the article. And while at it, be sure to subscribe to it Strategy&Business. So what are these three fellows talking about?

I was involved in (and sometimes managed) change leadership initiatives for two decades, and found the human dimension fascinating at times, yet also frustrating at other times. Some of these projects were small in scope, while a few were large (such as merging several organizations together). The S&B article helps shed some light on why people behave as they do and ways to more effectively lead people through change.

This article is well-timed, given the increasing turmoil in markets, the steady emergence of new competitors and technological change. Schwartz brings to the table a background in neuroscience; Gaito, learning in a large organization setting; and Lennick, ethics and leadership. I’ll note that the article is aimed at the private sector; however, the messages are highly relevant to those working in government and the not-for-profit sector.

An important point made early on by the authors is that not only do corporations face the challenge of the “complexity of collective behavior,” but changes must be made simultaneously while they carry out their daily activities and strategies.

Six principles of change, based on neuroscience, that have been used successfully at a variety of companies are presented:

1. Habits are hard to change because of how the brain manages them,

2. Because neural connections are “plastic,” behavior patterns can be changed,

3. People can rewire their thinking habits if they pay attention to new ways of thinking,

4. Emphasize what people are doing right, not their mistakes,

5. Build cognitive “veto power” by stepping back to consider possibilities,

6. Strengthen the ability to focus attention over time (a weakness with most organizations).
From these principles flow a series of six steps that compose what is called “The Virtuous Cycle of Focused Values.”

Step 1: Recognize the need for change

When engaging in this process, the key is to make it real by focusing on a compelling real-life issue.

Step 2: Relabel your reactions
Reframing on how you responded in the past to events or situations helps you to deal with such issues as embedded workplace assumptions and behaviors (e.g., “This is how things are done here.”)

Step 3: Reflect on your expectations and values
During this process it’s essential to think about something tangible that will captivate people’s attention; in doing so you’ll lay the framework to create the new conditions of interaction in the workplace.

Step 4: Refocus your behavior
This involves identifying the practices you wish to see become embedded in how the organization functions.

Step 5: Respond with repetitionAs a change leader you need to consistently practice the desired behaviors and hold yourself accountable. Tracking the daily behaviors that managers are expected to practice requires a set of metrics.

Step 6: Revalue your choices in real timeThis final step involves “progressive mindfulness.” It means from shifting from the mindset of “That’s how things used to be done here” to “We do things here better now.”

This is just a sampling of the S&B article, with a number of its key messages. Be sure to read it. As the authors state in their conclusion: “The concept of organizational reframing is still relatively young. The potential impact of neuroscience on management practice is mostly unrealized.”


Genuine inquiry starts when people ask questions to which they do not have an answer.
-Peter Senge

Photo by J. Taggart (lead singer of Hip Hop group Arrested Development)


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