The CEO of a large professional services firm stood in front of his firm’s employees, partners, and associates. He was feeling a little nervous because he was about to do something he had never done before—demonstrate new software. The firm was implementing a new client relationship management (CRM) system, and he was demonstrating the system to the entire organization.
You could hear the buzz in the room, a mixture of surprise, trepidation, and admiration, as the employees watched him turn on the computer and begin the demonstration. The director of information technology (IT) sat off to the side, just in case there were “technical” questions.
The demonstration went smoothly. But more important than the technical elements presented was the shift in the employees’ beliefs about the software. Their beliefs went from it’s too difficult and I won’t use it to, if he can do it, I can do it. The CEO’s demonstration also shifted the perceived value and importance of the software from just more IT to learn to, it must be important if the CEO is showing us.
This scenario is a reminder of the immense, but often overlooked power of modelling the desired behaviours and activities.
The Power of Modelling to Enable New Activity and Behaviours
Modelling stimulates a powerful and largely unconscious process called vicarious learning. Vicarious learning was first identified by Albert Bandura in the 1960s. He described it as the learning that occurs through watching others, who are similar, engage in an activity or behaviour that is new. 
The ability to learn vicariously starts when we are infants and continues throughout our lifespan. Before we had any direct experience, we learned almost everything vicariously. We observed our parents, grandparents, teachers, siblings, and even strangers to learn how and what to eat, walk, our first language, social norms, our beliefs etc.
Every day in your organization vicarious learning is happening—negatively and positively. You see it when that new employee begins to emulate some of the same undesirable traits of another employee or as team members quickly learn the social cues for using the lunchroom or talking to “the boss”. In one company I worked for, I noticed everyone arrived early and went for coffee together first thing in the morning. No one was required or even asked to arrive early, and the first few weeks I arrived at the scheduled time. But it didn’t take long before I found myself arriving early and going for coffee with everyone else. I never made a conscious decision to arrive early, I simply and unconsciously began to adjust and emulate the behaviour of people around me.
Why Modelling Helps Decrease Stress and Enhance Learning During Change
Modelling is powerful because when you watch someone who you believe is similar or even not as capable as you (as with the CEO), it unconsciously influences your perceived capability to perform the activity. You can see yourself doing or being something you previously didn’t believe was possible.
Modelling also helps to make the unfamiliar, familiar. Therefore, it’s very helpful when people have limited experience with a new activity or behaviour or they have had a negative experience with similar activity.
During one large change initiative, we activated vicarious learning through modelling to prepare people for training. We used a series of physical walkthroughs, software demonstrations by people who would use the system, and scenario conversations. These activities were designed to help people see themselves working comfortably and confidently in the new environment before they attended training. The result was people were more confident during the training, asked more relevant questions, and because they believed they already knew what they needed to do, they committed to adopting the activities and environment.
Consciously designing opportunities for vicarious learning through modelling, when enabling change, takes some time, but is worth the effort. It is a powerful way to support, encourage, build commitment, and enable the adoption of new activities and behaviours with less discomfort and stress.
What can you do to consciously build vicarious learning through modelling into your change management efforts?
 Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.