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Acting Our Way to New Thinking

Acting Our Way to New Thinking

David Marquet, Retired US Navy Captain and Expert on Leadership and Innovation, knows first-hand how small changes can positively impact the outcome from a team. In his blog post below, he tells readers about how thinking about new actions doesn’t build new pathways, but acting out new actions does:

Often, I see organizations attempt to instill behavioral change by telling their workers how to think with the hopes that behavioral change will follow.  While captain of the Santa Fe, I accidentally learned that the reverse works better.  We call this “act your way to new thinking, don’t think your way to new action.”

When I arrived on Santa Fe we had a problem with low morale.  The crew was not happy and it showed.  I asked the officers how we would know if the crew was proud of the boat.  I asked them what we would observe as evidence.  I got feedback such as:

  • They’d be proud of the ship.
  • They’d like it at work.

With some work, we boiled it down to a more behavioral description. For example,

  • They’d look visitors in the eye when they met in the passageway.
  • They would have their heads raised when walking down the pier past other submarines.

We had an inspection coming up and we didn’t have time for speeches so we just gave the crew the guidance on how to meet the inspectors (and any visitors) who would be riding Santa Fe.


We started by implementing the “Three-Name-Rule.”  When any member of the crew saw a visitor on our boat, he was to greet the visitor using three names—the visitor’s name, his own name, and the ship’s name.  For example, “Good morning Commodore Kenny, my name is Petty Officer Jones, welcome aboard Santa Fe.”

During the inspection, I noticed that not all the crew were following the new instructions.  In fact, only about 10% were.  Since we had more pressing issues (shooting torpedoes and missiles) I didn’t harp on it.  When we received our grades, my boss told me that it seemed like Santa Fe was a “new ship.”  Even those 10% had a significant impact on the impression we made.

Inside our brain


Recent research on the neurobiology of human decision-making offers the scientific explanation of why this is more effective.  As many of those who try to break a bad habit experience, simply knowing that a bad habit is bad does little to stop us from doing it. Functional magnetic resonance imaging studies show that our actions and the emotions connected to them build and strengthen neurological pathways in our brain that make it more likely for us to perform the same action in the future.  Thinking about new actions doesn’t build new pathways, acting out new actions does.  After repeating an action many times and receiving a positive stimulus each time, our new action becomes ingrained and our habits change.

In other words, our brain is hardwired by experience and feelings.  The the more frequent the experience and the stronger the positive feelings associated with it, the more we become hardwired to act that way.  That is why thinking our way to new behavior is so difficult.  Because just thinking about a new habit doesn’t build up the neural connections that lead to long-term behavioral change.

The “new thinking” is that traits such as pride and empathy are muscles, muscles in the brain that can be trained just like one would train a backhand in tennis.


When I tell people this story I sometimes get the comment, yes, but the act to change started with you and your team thinking that they needed to change and figuring out the mechanism for change.  Yes, that’s true.  I phrase it this way to describe the organization-wide implementation of the change and to crystallize the difference between what works and what doesn’t.

Acting your way into new thinking is an effective and science-driven mechanism that can help you change your organization.  Maybe you also have a problem with morale or maybe there are outdated procedures that contribute to your staff being unhappy in their roles. How could implementing a new set of actions help?

It was fun when visitors came to Santa Fe 6 months later, amazed by the pride the crew showed in the ship.  While it was true that improved grades on inspections and investing heavily in our peoples’ futures mattered, I’d always say — we don’t have a culture of pride, we have a rule.