Paradoxically this tool is neither particularly logical nor based on levels, yet can be useful as an aid to our thinking about change, facilitating a change process, and in any significant coaching dialogue. In our own work we have found it helpful as a way of organising thinking about a problematic situation or unexploited opportunity, provided our overall approach is systemic.
The original model was proposed by Robert Dilts in the 1980’s and variations have since appeared under a range of titles, including “Neuro-logical Levels” and “Logical Levels of Change”. In his original version, Dilts described the levels as a kind of ladder with each level rising to the one above it: Environment → Behaviour → Capabilities and Skills → Beliefs and Values → Identity → Spirituality and Purpose. Subsequently this became a pyramid with Environment at the bottom and Identity at the top, with Spirituality and Purpose above, and external to, the uppermost level.
Our preference is to think about the model in two ways: as an iceberg (with the levels in reverse order so that only environment and behaviours are visible above the waterline) or as a form of systems diagram. The former is more practical in helping us to decide where and how to intervene although the latter is much closer to how the model works because every element will be having some kind of effect on every other level.
The individual levels
If we consider each level individually we will begin to understand how each level interacts with every other level and therefore how it can be an enabler of change.
- Environment: This is the context within which something is happening. It will include naming the various stakeholders involved, the where and when of what’s happening and any external constraints imposed on the situation. Organisationally this would include pre-defined budgets for example.
- Behaviour: This is the ‘what’ and includes all the actions and activities involved in a given situation. It’s what people actually do.
- Capabilities, Skills and Competencies: Here we identify the ‘how’. In a commercial context this is also the level of business strategy and operational direction.
- Beliefs and Values: This level combines two criteria that could equally be considered as two separate levels. This level and the next are likely to be very significant in any challenging change environment and in any intense coaching scenario.
- Identity: This level takes account of our sense of who we are, our self-worth and self-esteem. It can be our identity as an individual, a team, a department, an organisation, an industry and even a culture. We have also found it useful to include the terms Purpose and Mission at this level as it seems to us that, at its best a statement of purpose should represent who we are, or who we are becoming.
- Systems: We have chosen to change the label for this level from Dilts’ Spirituality or Purpose. Our justification is the potential confusion over the use of the word spirituality; it can be interpreted as meaning having a religion (much more likely to be a belief structure and therefore at the Beliefs and Values level) or it could be considered as a ‘way of being’ in the world which could be more usefully thought of as an expression of Identity.
Not logical – and not levels!
Before we describe how the concept can actually be used, we thought it would be useful to describe the inconsistencies in the model so that, even though we believe it to be useful, readers can make up their own mind about its efficacy.
Albert Einstein obliquely referred to his own concept of a mathematical/philosophical concept of logical levels of thinking:
“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them”
… the implication being that we need to move up at least one logical level to solve our problems.
For Dilts’ model to truly be based on levels, each level would not only need to be conceptually at a larger chunk size than the preceding level but also to include all of the preceding levels. Therefore any change at a more advanced or higher level would immediately affect all earlier levels. Equally, a change at a lower level might influence the level above it, but would not necessarily change it substantially. To take an extreme example, consider someone who has always had a vague dream about how wonderful it would be to be a cardiac surgeon. They undertake some form of belief change process (completely do-able using NLP techniques) so that he or she is supremely confident about their ‘identity’ as a leading surgeon. Would I then want to be on the operating table with this person hovering over me unless they’d spent the required years in medical school followed by closely supervised surgical practice? We don’t think so!
To be a useful tool, the model should have at least one of the following …
- a consistent pattern regarding its degree of abstraction,
- a sequence in time or space
- some kind of logical evolution or process within it
Unfortunately, it has none of these. Having said that, it is possible to describe the model in a way that makes it appear to follow a logical sequence. This is what we do when introducing our clients to it as a way of facilitating change, or as a way of beginning to turn a failing project around:
- The more I practice the right things, the better I get. The better I get, the more my confidence in my skill, and my consistency, increases. The more my consistency increases, the more I begin to believe in myself. The more I believe in myself based on good evidence, the happier I become within myself.
How can we use the model?
Despite its inconsistencies, we have found the model to be useful as a way of deciding at what level of thinking a response needs to occur for the results to be sustainable over time. The general principle is to identify what level or levels the problem or opportunity occupies and to then recognise that if a particular intervention does not work, it is almost certain that the root cause will be at a higher (or deeper, depending on which way is ‘up’) logical level than the presenting symptoms.
Example: Physical well-being
The temperature in the office becomes unacceptable. We locate the thermostat, change it to the desired setting and wait for the change to occur – a change at the level of Behaviour resolves the problem at the Environment level.
However, if nothing happens, we will need outside assistance in the form of an engineer with the necessary expertise. In this case an intervention at Behaviour fails, but is subsequently overcome by going to Competencies and Skills.
Example: Personal learning
Someone who had unsuccessfully tried to learn the German language (Behaviour) several times over the years was reasonably competent in French and Spanish (more Behaviour). This meant that he had a basic predisposition to learn other languages (Competencies and Skills). Despite this he was still unable to become confident or competent in German. When he considered the beliefs and values he had attached to the different languages he realised that he thought of both French and Spanish as being musical, beautiful and sexy languages. Conversely, when he thought about German he considered it brash and discordant. It was then evident that he would have to revise his beliefs before he would be able to learn the required new language. (A shift at the Beliefs and Values level therefore making the change possible as the potential skill already exists).
Example: Team motivation issue
A team were experiencing lack of motivation and an increase in cynicism (Beliefs and Values) even though they had been successful over a considerable period of time (Behaviour). New performance measures were introduced (Behaviour and Competencies) and were initially accepted by all concerned as being a good idea (Beliefs level).
The situation continued to deteriorate however, until the leader of the group began to consider the issue of the group’s sense of purpose and mission (Identity). This led to tough discussions about respect and lack of trust (Beliefs and Values) which had arisen due to increasing pressure. The group then took time to redefine its sense of shared purpose (Identify) and the role it plays in larger society (Systems). This facilitated discussion enabled not only their purpose to be reconfirmed but also enabled them to define the criteria against which they would hold themselves accountable. Their degree of commitment to these criteria was tested while still in the session and the situation began to improve significantly almost immediately.
Example: Organisational effectiveness.
Much is talked about the development of business strategy, but failure seems to be commonplace. Strategy roughly overlays on to the competencies/skills/direction levels of Dilts’ levels, and the model gives us some clues about how things go wrong – and why they sometimes go right. The major banks in the UK have consistently portrayed themselves as responsible corporate citizens (identity), but from the year 2000 onwards there has been case after case of activities (behaviours) that can only be categorised as either immoral, illegal, or both. At the other end of the scale, the local pub landlord who locks up on a whim is exhibiting behaviours that are inconsistent with the customer-friendly beliefs and values that are necessary for survival in a tough business.
On the positive side, Apple and Google are both firms that have rocketed from almost nowhere to market domination in a couple of decades. Their effectiveness has been achieved through clarity of strategic purpose combined with a logical consistency throughout all the levels: their beliefs and values, skills, behaviours and even environment are completely congruent with their strategy.
Equally, whether we like a strategy or not (Ryanair being the classic example of an unloved set of strategies), it is far more likely to be delivered successfully when the logical levels are aligned – evidence being shown in 2014 of a significant change in direction by Ryanair after its’ rival EasyJet’s announcement in late 2013 of profits up by 51% (Ryanair having issued two profits warnings a little earlier). The changes in strategy seem to be paying off with their profits forecast to rise by approximately 20% for the subsequent year.
A failing business can fail because of problems at any of the logical levels, and following Einstein’s advice the solution can only be generated at higher levels.
As will be seen from these examples, the main benefit of using this model is that it helps us to identify the level of thinking that we need to consider in order for a change to be sustainable over time. It also begins to answer the question:
- if it is true that 80% of all significant change initiatives fail, what do the 20% do that is different?