Why Does Changing Behavior Take So Long? 3 Solutions to Speed Up the Process

March 17, 2022

Why Does Changing Behavior Take So Long? 3 Solutions to Speed Up the Process

Years ago, I was sitting in a meeting with leadership development professionals from Fortune 50 companies. One person remarked, “We won’t know for 25 years whether our work will produce any positive results.” Many nodded their agreement. Two alternative reactions went through my brain. One was, “How do you get a job where there is no accountability for a quarter of a century? Where do I apply?” The other reaction was, “If you don’t see any differences in behavior within six weeks, I doubt you ever will.”

Leadership development is about changing behavior. Yes, knowledge can be useful. Self-awareness is a necessary starting point for development. New mindsets can create the guardrails leading to better outcomes, but the only rock-solid measure of success in developing leaders is a new behavior.

Unfortunately, many executives remain highly skeptical about leadership development.

· Can and do leaders change their behavior?

· What is responsible for this widespread doubt?

· What could change the minds of those who doubt that leaders can make a significant change?

How to Change Perceptions of Leadership Development

1.    Make specific behavior change the objective, not the byproduct. Those seeking to develop leaders often focus on creating a seminar or workshop. Assume the topic is coaching skills. The instructional designers may structure blocks of information highlighting the importance of leaders being good coaches or what business outcomes result when better coaching occurs. Conceptual models are presented to give insight into various theories of coaching. Facilitator guides and exercises are designed to have participants better understand what good coaches avoid doing. I could go on, but the point is that these are all activities designed to educate the participant on this subject. These activities are “intervening variables” designed to lead to a general outcome.

The change I am proposing is that we shift the focus squarely on the outcome. Make the main focus the simple fact of whether or not the participant can display good coaching behavior with their colleagues at work. The measure of success is not the participant’s satisfaction with the “f’s” of the event (facilities, faculty, food, and fun) but with their ability to conduct a more effective coaching conversation. 

2.    Dramatically cut the period of time in which you expect change to occur. Laurence Peter observed that the discussion in a meeting will always expand to fill the time allocated for the meeting. If scheduled for one hour, it will take at least one hour. Most of the time, projects will take as long as we anticipated. These become self-fulfilling prophecies.

How long does it take for human behavior to change? We’ve all known or heard of people being in therapy for countless years. That may help to account for the fact that when we think about some major changes in human behavior, we are prone to think in terms of years.

Recently I was drawn to an article with a heading that described a research study about psychologists successfully changing people’s personalities in two weeks. It caught my eye because it was so contrary to all that I had been led to believe was possible.[1]  Changing a personality in two years would normally be seen as impossible. Yet this group of psychologists at the University of Zurich demonstrated success with 255 subjects in two weeks. Participants were students and full-time working adults. They were assigned to two groups based on their selection of a development objective. One group chose to become more self-disciplined. This pertained to behaviors such as exercise and improved eating habits. The other group chose to become more open to new experiences.

The primary intervention was two daily calls on the participant’s smartphone. The first, in the morning, reminded them of their objective and gave them an encouraging message. The evening smartphone message asked three simple questions, seeking their assessment of their progress during the day. Post-measurements after the two weeks showed measurable behavior change. Follow-ups two weeks later, and then ten weeks later, showed the change persists. (In all candor, I’d describe their accomplishment as behavior change, not fundamental personality change. Luckily, it is a behavior change that most leaders need.) The exciting part of this research is the bold target of changing behavior in a short time span, not months or years, but only 14 days with minimal time away from the participant’s normal daily activities.

3.    Creating a new habit is the longer-term objective of leadership development. The success of the experiment described above hinges on the fact of making the specifically identified behavior become viewed as a practical, reasonable target. Then, the emphasis on the immediate application, when practiced for a relatively short time, became a repeated behavior, which became a new habit. For it to become permanent, there must be ongoing self-monitoring or external follow-up.


The changes proposed above may not seem all that dramatic to the casual reader. I would emphasize, however, that these shifts represent a new mindset about leadership development.

From: To:
  • Ideas, information, insights
  • Specific new behavior
  • Distant future implementation
  • Immediate application
  • Anticipated occasional use
  • New habit, frequently

When implemented, these changes are attainable and would quickly change the way those inside every organization perceive leadership development. Skepticism would diminish as observers identify tangible and immediate changes in their colleagues. The outcome? Participants would become more vigorous champions because they could recognize their new behavior, which in turn would be converted into better business results.

—Jack Zenger

(This article first appeared on Forbes)

 [1] Mirjam Stieger, Sandro Wepfer, Dominik Rüegger, Tobias Kowatsch, Brent W. Roberts, Mathias Allemand; “Effects of a Two‐Week Smartphone‐Based Intervention for Personality Change” European Journal of Personality, May 2020