Changing Behavior – “It Doesn’t Feel Like Me!”

training to writeWho said growth was easy?  What have been the more challenging times in your career?  Changing from careful individual perfectionism to delegation and oversight?  Learning to think more strategically?  Modifying management habits that weren’t working successfully?

And what made those transitions so difficult?  In the wailing outpouring of a client, “When I do this new stuff, it doesn’t feel like me!”

How quickly we forget the lessons of our childhood!  Did it feel ‘like me’ when you learned to ride a bike or play the piano or pitch a softball or master algebra?  Yet somehow we all expect that as we get older and wiser, we’ll be able to adopt new behaviors and master new skills by sheer force of determination – in the wink of an eye.

Changing behavior is an especially difficult transition for adults, because it is actually harder than learning the new skills of childhood.  We have to unlearn current behaviors in order to relearn new ones.  Neither side of that equation is easy.  Changing behavior is not knowledge learning, adding data to the bank.  It’s practice learning, only acquired through trial (and, unfortunately, sometimes error as well).

Let’s look at a simple example.  Try voluntarily writing with your non-dominant hand.  It’s exceedingly difficult at first.  It doesn’t feel like you!  It’s not at all natural.  You can’t accomplish anything by instinct; you need to focus on every movement in order to get a simple task completed.  And when it’s completed, can anyone read what you wrote?  What’s your reaction?  Likely that you’d revert to your dominant hand.

Let’s take that a little further.  Your boss puts in your performance review that you must become ambidextrous.  Does that make it feel more ‘like you’?  Nope.  Does it make you try harder?  Maybe.  But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s hard.  And in fact, knowing that there are expectations of change can make it more frustrating to wait out the discomfort during the time it takes to become more proficient.  Add to that the ego whiplash when you have to demonstrate your awkwardness in your new behavior to an audience!

Learning new behaviors – delegating instead of doing it yourself, listening instead of jumping in with answers, etc. – is a job for the courageous, and for starters, you should give yourself credit for taking on a long and demanding process.  There are also some things you can do and recognize that may help to make that process less onerous.

  • You need to believe there’s a good reason to change, preferably an internal one. It helps to write it down.
  • It helps to have a process for changing your behavior. Work with your manager or coach to create an understandable process and timeline for yourself.
  • Understand, going in, the timeframe and time commitment. Don’t expect to relearn behaviors in less than 6 – 12 months, and plan to commit time several days a week to this work.
  • Understand that your major work will be practice, and your major way of knowing progress will be asking for feedback. Neither one will feel very comfortable for a while, but when feedback starts to offer some glimpses of progress, the practice will feel more compelling.
  • Ask/look for methods, processes, and tools to help you in your re-learning. When things feel less natural, these aids can help you to get through difficult moments.  As time goes on, you’ll find yourself adopting elements of these aids into your ‘toolbox’ as part of your emerging natural style.
  • Understand that your job is twofold: developing new behaviors, and building your confidence in your ability to apply them successfully. While you’re practicing the behaviors, look for opportunities to test them in situations that will gain for you the greatest level of confidence.
  • Expect backsliding and failures, but don’t stop when they happen. Every behavioral change program, including Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous, accounts for backward steps in order to move forward.

Is changing your work behavior easy?  Not by a long shot.  It can actually feel like returning to childhood.  But when you start feeling the new behavior is ‘like me’, it is one of the most rewarding senses of accomplishment ever!

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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4 thoughts on “Changing Behavior – “It Doesn’t Feel Like Me!”

  1. You are so right, Doris. The insights from behavior change in such things as addiction and weight loss go a long way to informing how we can expect to change work habits or any other life habits.

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