The moment you know - Aufwärts Komplize (1.1)Organisational learning and learning programs are mostly about developing a new skill, changing behaviour or enhancing our options to act in the real world. One of the main illusions of the mind we face in our day to day work is that one can ‚learn‘ something today, that makes a difference for his or her work ‚from next Monday on‘. All our experiences – and the newer science as well – point in a different direction: good intentions are seldom turned into new behavior and what is ‚learned‘ in a training or workshop needs more effort over a period of time to be turned into a useful new skill.

We have put together some background information on the neuroscience behind it to give a better understanding of the dynamics involved. This knowledge helps us a lot to match client’s expectations with our professional knowledge about how people learn and how behavior can be changed. And it might help you not to fall under the ‚illusion of potential‘, i.e. the illusion one can ‚get smart quick‘ (Chabris & Simons, 2012)

Good intentions gone…

Here is some information from studies about how well
’good intentions‘ are turned into new behavior (forsa, 2012)
Top Ten New Year’s Resolutions in Germany 


Length of Resolutions
Data from the USA show how resolutions maintain (Norcross et. al, 2002):


More than half our resolutions do not last long and the intended goals are seldom reached.

Why is new skill development so hard?

  • We tend to take too big bites
  • We are under the illusion of potential
  • We do not know enough about the dynamics behind successful goal achieving

Rock and Berkman (2012) suggest a hierarchy of goals to study implementation strategy and link these to various levels of difficulties. There works is also helpful in understandig good intentions when learning a new skill:

  • Level 1 goals deal with difficulties of a rather simple kind (e.g. tidy up my email account). We have seen tasks of this difficulty a lot. These goals refer to the present and we have a relatively clear understanding of the concepts to follow in order to achieve this goal.
  • Level 2 goals deal with more complicated issues (e.g. setting up a project plan). We may have seen these issues some times already but even though we have concepts available we do not know exactly how  to navigate through these concepts to reach our goal.
  • Level 3 goals deal with difficulties of a more abstract kind which are difficult to comprehend (e.g. improve our business unit’s culture). These goals refer to the wider future, the concepts to reach them are uncertain and we have never or very seldomly seen the emerging difficulties.

Avoid or approach goals?

The so called ‚avoidance goals‘ trigger the threat system of the brain (e.g.: if we do not find a solution for X we’ll be out of the market!). Typical threat responses are: stress, anger, blackout, narrowness, ‚automatic‘ problem solving without creativity or ‚thinking‘. Avoidance goals create urgency and can work (short time) with level 1 goals, depending on the individual (and what you find appropriate in your context). Avoidance goals work not so well for level 2 goals and do not work at all for level 3 goals.

Level 2 and Level 3 Goals rather need ‚approach goals‘ (attractive, activating, pointing out the benefits, focussing more on the ‚Why‘ and giving deeper sense). This type of goal activates the reward system of the brain and enables creativity, curiosity, deeper insights and the discovery of new solutions. We get better results in shorter time using approach goals for most of level 2 and all of level 3 goals.

Surprise: There is evidence that approach goals contribute positively to intrinsic motivation whereas avoidance goals do not.

Take a moment and reflect on your own to-do-list oder kanban-board: To which level do your actual goals belong?

Three steps to new skill development

Well, we like practical ideas. So here are three steps you can experiment with to implement the above ideas into your daily practice:

Step 1 – Initialize your actions and behavior: Level 2 and – even more so –  level 3 goals need some brain work and expertise to get a grip on. Here is a simple to use guide for setting goals and the goal pursuit:

  • Phrase the goal in a positive, easy to remember, activating way. Make it simple, unexpected, concrete, credible and emotional.
  • Use approach goals instead of avoidance goals. The more one is attracted by the outlook of reaching a goal, the higher the initial motivation will be.
  • Create a social context. We often work together with others to reach a goal. Perceived closeness and similarity are key to keep you going (your progress is my progress).

Step 2 – Try out new behavior and stabilize it: The ‚How‘ and ‚Why‘ of tasks are processed in separate brain systems and never at the same time (Berkman & Rock, 2012) . Thinking too much about the ‚How‘ makes you loose sight of the overall goal, thinking too much about the ‚Why‘ never gets you into actually doing something. Both lead to de-motivation.

  • Link the ‚How‘ of your actions whenever possible to the ‚Why‘ you are doing this (e.g. in order to become this, I will do that… I do that, in order to become this).
  • Bridge the gap between intention and behavior. You can increase goal attainment and decrease distraction by having in mind: If ‚X‘ happens, then I do ‚Y‘.
  • Be mindful of your own thinking and the dynamics behind you behavior (Oh, wait: I think too hard about how to do it… What again am I doing this for?).

Step 3 – Turning new habits into deeper routines: Our brains are sensitive to anticipated rewards. Their goal is to predict rewarding outcomes and link them to specific behaviors or situations. Reward turns one-time behaviors into habits.

  • Go for small, rewarding victories.
  • Habit emerges from frequent repetition. Create stable stimuli and procedures (e.g. context, people, wind-ups) so that your behavior becomes independent of reward.
  • You recognize routine by behavior that is highly efficient, automatic, feels effortless and requires no attention.

These three steps clearly take some time and effort to climb. But how do you know that you have reached your goals? Well, to say it in the words of David Bowie (2013): the moment you know, you know you know 🙂

But seriously: you know when you have reached your goals when you feel efficient in what you are doing and your new behavior does not feel so new any more and requires no special attention.

Sources & Inspiration

  • Berkman, E. & Rock, D. (2012) Focus Your Aim: A Neuroleadership Model of Goals, Neuroleaderhsip Summit New York 2012
  • Bowie, David (2013) Where Are We Now? The Next Day
  • Chabris, Christopher & Simons, Daniel (2011) The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us, HarperCollins, also on youtube:
  • Norcross J.C., Mrykalo, M.S. and Blagys, M.D. (2002) Auld lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of  New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers‘ Journal of Clinical Psychology, Volume 58, Issue 4, pages 397–405
  • Forsa, Die Vorsätze der Deutschen für 2013 in Deutschland

Dieser Blogartikel ist zuerst auf erschienen (18. September 2013) – Version 1.1.

Foto: aufwärts von complize/photocase_de