Most of us are pretty good at accepting that we need to change certain behaviors and habits that are interfering with our personal or professional relationships. That said, we often find it quite difficult to actually make those changes. The ability to adapt or modify our own behavior is especially important where being able to work effectively with others is critical in feeling satisfied with our work and careers, shaping the organization’s culture and driving successful transformations. An organization transformation often hinges on a leader’s ability to inspire, motivate and energize others. It can help to make the case for a leader to strengthen or adapt his or her style, behavior and actions, but that alone won’t make personal change happen.
Why is personal change so difficult, and what can we do about it? These four tactics can help you understand your behavior and make the kind of lasting changes that will improve your effectiveness within and beyond the workplace.
Reframe the need for personal change
How we frame personal change can either create or drain the energy we need to truly change our behavior. It’s hard to feel motivated or impassioned if we are looking backwards at the things we did wrong as the catalyst for change. Instead, if we were to reframe personal change in terms of the things we can do differently to increase our impact or effectiveness, change can feel more possible, and dare I say, even exciting.
I witnessed this with a mid-level leader I was coaching who was trying to change his approach from being a deep technical expert to developing technical expertise in others, in an effort to increase business performance. Every time we met, he’d repeat his belief that making the changes we identified was going to be really, really hard. He was so focused on his “failed” attempts in the past and how “nothing he tried really worked.” Only when he was able to refocus his view on what was actually possible moving forward did the baggage he was carrying get lighter. Instead of psyching himself out, he was ready to psych himself up.
Understand your triggers
Most of us think we are fairly self-aware, but usually our awareness is at a superficial level. We know we do things that get in the way of our effectiveness, because either others have told us or we’ve figured it out ourselves. We might even know exactly what our missteps are, but we usually haven’t considered what causes us to act this way. Thinking deeply about your behaviors can sound intimidating – but don’t worry, I’m not suggesting years of psychoanalysis. Going deeper; taking the time to observe yourself, specifically what happens to trigger you before you behave a certain way, is much less intense and easier to figure out than you might think.
As defined by the Cambridge dictionary, “to trigger” is to cause something to start. For instance, I know a trigger for me is when someone starts to make excuses for what they did and/or to blame forces outside their control. My typical reaction is to stop listening and quickly point out how they need to think differently. Then, I usually go on to provide solutions. My intent is be helpful – to set them on the right path. But that isn’t the result. In fact, in more cases than not the opposite occurs as the person experiences me as unempathic and providing unsolicited advice. Only when I took the time to observe myself repeatedly in these types of situations was I able to uncover my trigger.
Learn how to regulate yourself
Daniel Goleman, who developed a performance-based model of EQ to assess levels of emotional intelligence and identify areas of improvement, defines self-regulation as controlling or redirecting disruptive emotions or impulses. Someone who doesn’t self-regulate will have the propensity to act before they think. In practical terms, when you self-regulate, you’re able to catch yourself before you demonstrate a behavior that you are wanting to change.
This ability to self-regulate played out in the following way with a sales executive I was coaching. She became aware of a trigger that interfered with her being perceived positively by cross-functional colleagues and prevented her from getting positive results for customers. Her trigger was hearing colleagues say they weren’t willing to change, or even consider changing, a process or solution that she believed she had presented a clear business case for doing so.
After a week or two of self-observation, she learned that this trigger caused her to become angry and argumentative. This resulted in her colleagues becoming defensive and even more resistant, and to view her as self-serving. She noticed that her body would get tense and her heart would beat faster when she was triggered. With this deeper self-awareness, she was able to begin to self-regulate. One way she did this was to notice the change in her body, write down her thoughts (to others, it simply looked like she was taking notes) and to not say anything in that moment. This self-regulation allowed her the time to determine if this was a battle worth fighting.
Practice new behaviors and ask for feedback
Stopping or pausing an unproductive behavior gives you the space to try out new or different behaviors. This doesn’t mean undoing or pulling back from your strengths, but it does mean modifying your strengths to fit the situation more effectively. For instance, passion and customer focus were clear strengths of the sales executive in the previous example. Her goal was not to become less passionate or customer focused but to adapt or modify her behavior so that her passion and customer focus had the intended impact. Once the sales executive became adept at self-regulation, she could direct her energies toward listening fully to her colleagues’ perspectives to identify common points of interest and mutually decide whether to pursue a change.
Since trying out different strategies and behaviors can be uncomfortable, a great way to take the pressure off is to be open about the changes you’re making. Being transparent about what you’re working on has several benefits. It will help to create a cheering section to free you up to stumble before you glide. Who doesn’t want to encourage or help pick someone up in the pursuit of becoming a better version of themselves? It also provides others with the permission to provide you with feedback on how you’re doing – so you don’t have to guess if you’re having the intended impact.
Whether you’re looking to become a more effective leader or improve the way you interact with people in your life outside of work, personal change can feel a lot harder than has to be. By reframing the need for change, understanding what factors trigger your behavior, learning how to regulate yourself, and creating a process for practicing and gaining feedback on new behaviors, you can successfully make the changes that once seemed so daunting or implausible.
Lisa Geller is a senior consultant at AlignOrg Solutions and is also the founder of the Geller Consulting Group, www.lisagellergroup.com, a human capital consulting firm that provides talent management solutions and executive coaching services.