• Bella Trenkova

Neuroscience for Agile Leadership: Behavior-Belief System, Agile Mindset, and How They Relate

This post is the third installment of the Neuroscience for Agile Leadership blog series. The article explores the neuroscientific underpinnings of our behaviors and the factors that drive how we act, feel and think. Understanding the relationship between behaviors and mindset can help Leaders succeed in achieving personal and team growth.


Virtually, any Intro to Agile training deck talks about how Agile is more than a methodology or a set of practices. It is even more than the 12 principles and 4 values outlined in the Agile Manifesto.

Agile is a Mindset.

You may have also seen a graphic putting it all in a perspective: the Agile Mindset is described by the 4 Agile Manifesto Values, which are defined by the 12 Principles, which are manifested through an unlimited number of practices.


There is already a plethora of literature explaining the Agile Mindset. (I will only make a quick note that virtually all articles and books on the topic directly or indirectly describe the Growth Mindset researched by prof. Carol Dweck and referenced in one of our previous articles.)


The existential conundrum of the Agile Mindset is that it is well understood by the people that already have it, but it is really hard to explain to and turn into believers the people that don't have it. It is a perfect Catch 22. How can this cycle be broken?

How do we make people embrace the Agile Mindset?

Every Agile Transformation Lead knows that the easiest part of an Agile transformation is adopting the first few agile practices ("We do daily Scrums, and we keep our user stories in Jira"), followed by a declaration of the first win: "We are now doing Agile!"


However, most individuals and organizations stop there and remain stuck in their old mindset. Inevitably, the practices become a "modified" or a "hybrid" version of the original intent. They kind of look and sound "Agile", but down under - they still taste and smell like a merely repackaged product of a siloed, command-and-control, zero-risk-tolerance, no-room-for-error culture.


It is all downhill from there - "doing Agile" does not bring the promised benefits of high-performance and competitiveness and it is followed by another quick declaration: "Agile doesn't work!"


Changing the individual's mindset and subsequently, the organizational culture is the biggest challenge to any Agile Coach or Transformation Lead. It is an act of art and science.

This is where Neuroscience comes to help us.

Before we jump into Neuroscience, it may be prudent to introduce what behavioral psychologists call the Behavior-Belief System. It consists of:


- Behaviors -

Behaviors are the observable physical and not-so-observable mental acts that come to the surface and manifest themselves in our actions, speech, feelings, and thoughts. The behaviors that we do on autopilot are our habits - like nail-biting, hitting the alarm snooze button in the morning, compulsively checking the phone, or always thinking about our response and not listening to the other person speaking. Habits are the hardest behaviors to change. (This book is one of the best on the subject and I found it highly informative and transformative.) Our behaviors are only the tip of the iceberg. They are influenced by what peaks from beneath the water surface - our Attitudes:





- Attitudes -

Attitudes are relatively enduring evaluations on an attitude object (e.g. person, object, product, task, social event, phenomenon.) They involve judgment or preference often expressed with words like "I like," "I hate," "I prefer," "I care about, " "I don't give a ..." - as in "I am not listening to you know, because what I really care about is my rebuttal proving that I am right." Something interesting about attitudes is that some attitudes are inherited, and some are learned through direct or indirect experiences with the attitude object (e.g. my older son doesn't like mushrooms because he tried them once and found them yucky [direct experience]; vs my younger son who also doesn't like mushrooms, although he never ate them, because the older brother doesn't like them, hence they must be yucky [indirect experience].)


This article describes an interesting twins study researching the hereditability of attitudes. There are a few interesting stats, but most notably and highly pertinent to this article - the researchers found that the hereditability of the attitude toward "being the leader of a group" is a 0. This goes against the early Leadership Theories of leadership-is-a-trait and fully supports the Growth Mindset and the modern Leadership Theories of leadership-as-a-behavior that can be learned.


Attitudes are the response that is the result of our Values, which lie a little deeper in our "iceberg":





- Values -

Values are stable long-lasting beliefs about what is important to a person. Values epitomize how we have learned to think about how things ought to be, or people ought to behave, especially in terms of qualities such as honesty, integrity, openness, etc. They become the standards by which people order their lives and make their choices.


Such standards are relatively few and determine or guide an individual’s evaluations of the many objects encountered in everyday life - e.g. "I am not listening to you, because I value me being right more than I value your opinion."


Our values are based on Beliefs we are strongly committed to and hold as very important to us.




- Beliefs -

At the very bottom of the Behavior "iceberg," are our Beliefs - ideas that we hold as being true. A person can base a belief upon certainties (e.g. mathematical principles, probabilities, or matters of faith). A belief can come from different sources:

  • including a person’s own experiences or experiments,

  • the acceptance of cultural and societal norms (e.g. religion, fashion, "that's how we've always done it"),

  • or what other people say (e.g. parents, teachers, role models, bosses, or coaches).

A potential belief sits with the person until they accept it as truth and adopt it as part of their individual belief system. Each person evaluates and seeks sound reasons or evidence for these potential beliefs in their own way. Once a person accepts a belief as a truth that they are willing to defend, it can be said to form part of their belief system. E.g. "I am not listening to you, because I value me being right, because I believe being right validates me as a leader and being wrong takes away from my leadership image." (Did you catch the Fixed Mindset here?)



- The Neuroscience Take -

Behavioral psychology provides the observation of the hierarchy of the Behavior-Belief System. Neuroscience provides the explanation: our values and beliefs are long-living neural paths, created through the processes of neuroplasticity. They are formed in our low-energy-consuming, high-efficiency limbic system and as such, are a lot closer to our feelings and state of being (also residing in the limbic system), and not as close to our logic and the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex. (That's why more often than not, we do what we are used to or what we feel like, rather than doing what we should be doing.)





Beliefs are energy-saving shortcuts in modeling and predicting the environment. They are a reflection of the environment in which they were formed. Beliefs allow the brain to distill complex information, enabling it to quickly categorize and evaluate information and to jump to conclusions. Beliefs preserve a kind of cognitive homeostasis—a stable, familiar approach to processing information about our world. As such, beliefs can be very beneficial... until the realities of our environment change, and the beliefs no longer serve the originally intended purpose.


Restructuring our belief system engages the prefrontal cortex parts of the brain involved in higher reasoning processes and computation - it is effortful, time- and energy-consuming.


- In Conclusion -

Our behaviors are driven by our attitudes, which are the result of our values, which in turn are our most deeply-held beliefs.

In other words, to change our behaviors and habits, we must first change our beliefs first.

If we re-draw our Behaviour-Belief "iceberg" using a different visual metaphor, the resulting picture will look like this:




And if that looks awfully familiar - it's because it is! Remember the earlier Agile Mindset depiction? Our Agile Mindset, Values, Principles, and Practices are nothing more than a contextual expression of our human Behavior-Belief System.


And this is the scientific proof that in order for Agile to "work" and for the practices to be effective, the participants in the process mush change their mindset first.

It feels like we have made a full circle to the original question: How do we change Mindsets?

Bear with me! The answer is exactly in the human Behavior-Belief System described above. It is a complex, bi-directional and reciprocal system. As much as our behaviors are driven by our beliefs, it is also true that our beliefs are formed based on our direct or indirect experiences - the results of our own behaviors or based on influences from our environment. In other words, our beliefs/mindset can be formed or changed based on controlled changes in our own behavior and the behaviors of others that we respect and look up to. By "controlled changes," I mean:

- small, atomic, single-variable changes,

- designed for a particular expected positive outcome,

- observed and measured against that expected positive outcome,

- adjusted if needed,

- repeated until they become habitual.


If we apply the above approach, kicking off an Agile transformation by doing a couple of Agile practices is a great start - as longs as:

- the team knows why they are doing them - the team can link the practices directly to the Agile principles and values,

- the team has an agreed-upon way of measuring improvement of the desired outcomes,

- the team consciously reflects on the usefulness of the practices and the measured improvements (That's why holding retrospectives should be one of the first and mandatory practices!), and

- the team is committed and consistent.

Keep adding small controlled changes to your practices until "doing Agile" becomes "being Agile."

It happens without warning, no fanfares, or fireworks, one can't even tell when it happened, but can for sure tell the difference.


- Becoming a Better Leader -

Leaders embracing the right mindset is crucial for the success of the Agile journey. Leadership's mindset has a pervasive and cascading impact on the mindset of their team, and the culture of the underlying organization.


The best news is that Leaders can use the very same approach to improve and change their own mindset. Following our scenario above, if you want to become a better listener:

- set your intentions and make a conscious effort to pause your internal thoughts and listen to your team,

- accept that after they are finished talking, you may not have a great response,

- depending on the urgency of the situation, ask more questions until a viable solution emerges or ask your team for time to reflect and think about your decision,

- monitor their reaction during and after the conversation,

- <let this happen a few times so that a pattern can emerge>

- observe any changes in how your team relates to you, (chances are - you'll notice more respect and loyalty, and you will see no evidence of the earlier negative assumptions you've held),

- respect builds trust,

- respect and trust lead to an increase in team performance (<future article>).

Slowly, your old belief, that not having the last word takes away from your leadership stature, is replaced with a new belief that letting the team voice opinions and make autonomous decisions actually makes you a better leader. Slowly, by turning around a few more beliefs, your entire Fixed Mindset shifts toward becoming a Growth Mindset, and...

You have the key to changing mindsets!

Hopefully, this article and the suggested books will take you a step closer to being the Leader you want to be.

Only remember! Changing beliefs is a slow and energy-consuming brain-rewiring process - be patient and kind - with yourself and with your team!

I can't wait to hear your stories from your transformation journey. Drop a comment below!

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