The Neuroscience of Leading Change by Creating New Habits

“The task is…not so much to see what no one else has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees.”

- Erwin Schrodinger

brain_behavior2Changing human behavior in an organization is a large-scale and seemingly daunting undertaking.  Or is it? Helping people overcome the human resistance to change in order to learn new habits is probably the biggest hurdle that leaders encounter when facilitating organizational change initiatives.  However, recent findings in contemporary neuroscience grant us some intriguing and extremely useful insights into how we can more effectively help people shift out of old habits of behavior into new ways of thinking and being that promote dramatic changes in culture and organizational performance.

The old saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” has been proven inaccurate by the latest neuroscientific discoveries.  Science now tells us that the human brain is plastic, malleable, and changes with experience.  We can re-organize and re-structure it throughout the course of our lifetime.  At an individual level, our Chief Executive Officer is our brain…it is the command center for all that we think and do.  When we change our brain, we literally change our mind….and ultimately change who we are and how we lead.  As Dan Siegel notes “The mind uses the brain to create itself.”  What has the most substantial influence on how the human brain changes and develops?  Attention.  Not just any kind of attention, but dense attention.  The key here is that eliciting attention and helping people hold it long enough to consolidate changes in the brain that correlate with changes in beliefs, emotional responses, attitudes, and behaviors requires a few critical steps that many leaders overlook when working to move their organization beyond status quo.  The NeuroLeader, also sometimes referred to as a “Change Leader” or “Brain-Based Leader”, uses the EMBED Model™ for creating new habits to help others change behavior.

Embed Model for Changing Habits

Developed by Zero Point Leadership™, below are the five fundamental steps involved in the Model:

  1. Engage- The foundation for helping others to change unwanted habits is a state of engagement, also known as a ‘toward” state.  The organizing principle of the human brain is to “minimize danger, maximize reward” (Gordon, 2000), with the default state being to minimize danger, also known as an “away” state or “threat” state.  When in this state, the human brain is cognitively disengaged and noisy from the activation of the emotions elicited from being in a state of threat vs. reward.  The “toward” state sets the stage for reflection on the what’s getting in the way, making new connections, and accessing novel solutions to problems.
  2. Move to Insight- Helping people hear those quiet signals referred to as “a-ha” moments is at the heart of personal learning and innovation.  This 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.  A toward state creates a space where roadblocks are clearly brought to light (awareness) and solutions from the non-conscious are able to be accessed (insight).  Insights create permanent neural changes in the brain, are more memorable than linear problem solving, and are what’s needed for addressing complex barriers to change.
  3. Break unwanted patterns- Insights aren’t very useful unless action is taken.  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 behaviors doesn’t require big action.  Small steps can just as easily create new habits.  What is important is that action follows insight.  This leads to the creation of new neural pathways in the brain and the consolidation necessary for changes in emotional responses, thinking, and behavior.
  4. Evaluate and Adapt- Ongoing follow-up to identify and acknowledge the learning that comes from taking action is essential for tracking progress and ensuring self-accountability.  New action that follows insight provides opportunity for learning, which leads to more reflection and additional insights.  This cycle of learning leads to deeper levels of engagement and ensures action steps are precise and laser focused on the new thinking and behavior that supports goal achievement.
  5. Develop new behavior- New habits of behavior need reinforcement for sustainable change to occur.  Physical changes in the brain that correlate with changes in habits depend on the mental state of attention.   When a leader or coach reinforces new habits, attention is maintained and new pathways in the brain are developed and expanded.  The persistence of continuous and repeated attention to the desired change strengthens the hard-wiring of newly created habits. 

If you want to learn more about becoming a NeuroLeader and how you can use the EMBED Model™ for creating new habits, join us for the upcoming neuroLeader Virtual Master Class™- an 8-week journey where deep dive into what modern science tells us about what it takes to dramatically improve performance and change the way we think about leadership!  Registration ends soon!



Gordon, E. (2000).  Integrative neuroscience:  Bringing together biological, psychological and clinical models of the human brain.  Singapore:  Harwood Academic Publishers.