PsychologyatWork Logo

Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?

Vol. 2, Issue 4
Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?

Do you find yourself constantly reacting to the latest problem? Do you ever have days when you describe your life as out of control? Are there people around you who 'push your buttons'? 
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions then stop! Just for a moment. Step back and let's look at how some of the recent and significant brain research can help you change your behaviour and take control.

Kind regards,




"Can't Teach An Old Dog New Tricks"  Well, actually you can! 


Recent research on brain function has exploded previous dogma that our brains degenerate with age and that our brain function inevitably declines.  Instead, the old saying "use it or lose it" is much more accurate.


Researchers thought for years that the brain came prewired - that its development from birth through adolescence was the result of a gradual unfolding of its already existing potential, and that by adulthood it was set.  But new findings show that the brain's circuitry is wired as the individual develops and can be rewired by the conscious thoughts and behaviours of the individual.  In other words, we can change how our brain works by our own self-directed will.


But it does take constant practice of a new skill to do this and the brain scientists say neurons that "fire together, wire together".  That is, if we constantly practice something the brain actually develops physically bigger connections and we get better at the new skill or behaviour.


How do these insights help us in the world of work?  If you want to develop management skills it's not just about knowledge.  We all know managers who, despite training, struggle to work with others, can't build teams, can't make decisions.  Instead it's the way you think about your situation, the way you respond, and the effort you make to focus your attention that literally rewires how your brain works.


So as well as doing the things that brain researchers are telling us are important for brain health like learning new skills and getting physical exercise, the brain research also highlights specific strategies helpful for developing some of those 'hard to change' yet critical leadership skills.  Try one or two of the following to help you change a behaviour that is causing you a problem.



1. Harness your will.  When we change ourselves - and such a change is usually required when learning new leadership and management skills - be aware that the adjustment is often difficult largely because we must quite literally make physical changes in our brain.  Making change takes willpower and motivation.  So, be clear about the disadvantages of not changing, and the advantages of making the change.  Write it down.  Make the purpose and benefits of any change clear.


2. Instead of resisting the old way, substitute a new one.  When you experience being stuck in old ways of acting, don't focus on resisting but instead substitute a new way of acting.  For example, if you can't help yourself jumping in and 'solving' other people's problems, try a new way of behaving.  This could be asking questions (not giving solutions!) when you see someone with a problem.  Consciously do something or respond in a way that is different.  When you simply resist an old habit or way of doing something you give it attention, and attention strengthens the brain pathways. If instead you substitute a new behaviour you start to create a new brain pathway.  Lead your brain instead of it leading you.


3. Rehearse the new behaviour in your mind.  If you mentally rehearse a desired behaviour, your brain is changed and your skill level improves.  Athletes have successfully used this approach for years.


4. Act as if you have already mastered the new skill.  Acting as if you have a trait causes both brain changes and chemical changes throughout the body.  For example, if you want to develop neural pathways in the brain to help you become more confident you firstly focus on what that behaviour means eg. how does a confident person sound when speaking, laughing, asking questions?  How does a confident person listen?  How does a confident person walk, sit, gesture?  What does a confident person think about?  By answering these questions and then letting your responses guide your behaviour, you become fully aware of your actions, they guide your behaviour and you grow in confidence.


5. Make mental notes to increase focus and attention.  Sometimes we get an emotional hijack, we get angry, annoyed, confused, fearful, feelings that take us off track from how we intend to behave or respond.  One way of effectively dealing with this is by "labelling the affect".  That means we label the feeling, saying in our mind or, if appropriate, aloud, statements such as "I am angry" or "I am nervous".  When we make statements like this, that part of the brain feeling the distracting emotion is calmed.  We can then return to clarity and purpose.  Because this is not always an easy thing to do in the heat of the moment, it helps to practice throughout the day with emotions and even behaviours that are easier to deal with  eg.  "I am eating", or "I am pleased" or "I am thinking about the project" or "I am procrastinating".  If you practice this skill in mental note taking, you will find that you can become calm in the middle of future storms.


Take control of your leadership development.  Start small.  Make use of what we know about how our brains work to help you change your behaviours and achieve your goals.