How can we change?

Andy Patterson

Andy Patterson

Head of Research and Global Partner

How can people change? It sounds easy but we all struggle to modify our behaviour, even when we know we have good reason to. What gets in the way? How can we remove the roadblocks? Can you really re-program yourself?

Some would say it’s very difficult to change. After all it took a long time to make us what we are. All that parenting, schooling, and our working development has taken tens of years to hone us into what we are. Surely we can’t change our personality just like that?

Well maybe we can. The research has shown that you don’t need to change the real “you. Instead all you have to do is change the mask that you wear. This mask is called a persona, from the Latin “persona” meaning “theatrical mask”. Let’s explain this more carefully.

It seems that we all have a smaller version of ourselves that we use with specific groups of others. We reduce the real “us” to a smaller subset. So the person we are at work, say, is a different person to the person we are at home with our family, or down the pub with our friends. It’s not a different personality, but it’s a subset of the bigger you. As the subset changes we become different. So perhaps whilst supporting our favourite team on the terraces on a Saturday afternoon we do things we wouldn’t do at work.

This subset is created by the group culture. Culture acts to shut down behaviours that don’t fit the group we are with. This is done by a type of memory that is triggered by the presence of the people. All of the people on the group have this shared memory, and they all transform to the persona that best fits with the group. Over time through shared experiences this memory gets refined into a stable pattern. It is an automatic and painless form of change.

So the challenge of change is not to produce a new personality, but to produce a new ”persona”. Fortunately this is not as hard as relearning your life experiences, but it will still take time.

The neuroscientist Kenji Doya, from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan has identified three learning mechanisms that help us produce a persona.

The first is our brains inherent plasticity. This is a slow process and requires repeated practice. The problem with this is that often culture change isn’t about rules, or forced behaviour, but more about empowerment and innovation. So we aren’t forced to practice new behaviours, and our natural course and speed makes us simply carry on using the old behaviours.

The second is changing because of reward. If we receive praise when we use different behaviours then our brains neurons start to forge new pathways through the  effect of praise on our synapses. This starts the process, but often isn’t enough to complete the new memory formation.

The third learning mechanism is called “supervised learning”. This is where a pre-existing persona is corrected and adjusted through repeated cycles of exposure. This also involves adjusting the triggers that connect us to the persona.  If we pay enough attention to remodelling our existing behaviours using the new culture then they will adjust. It also helps to have new jargon, symbolism and environment to reinforce the triggering of different behaviours.

So change may not be so hard after all. But we need to work at creating a new culture in which we practice things that we know how to do, but have shut out of our working environment because of our old history, memories and surroundings.

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