Brian was dismayed at the results of a 360-degree assessment he’d received through his company. Although he was greatly appreciated for his strong problem-solving and decision-making skills, the feedback showed his style was getting in the way. His staff saw him as not inclusive in making decisions that affected them, his colleagues pointed out a tendency to push too hard for decisions and to not wait for crucial data. But most dismaying for Brian was that his boss, who had always been his champion, was also raising concerns about how he got his good results as well as the results themselves.
“I get it,” Brian said. “I can see what they’re trying to tell me, and I think my drive does overwhelm everybody. And if I’m honest, sometimes I see that my decisions could have been better.” But then Brian added another comment. “You know, this is a style that’s really embedded in how I live my life. I can’t stand uncertainty. I feel compelled to get problems solved and decisions made, because it relieves the anxiety I feel about hanging questions. I operate the same way with family decisions. I’m not sure I can change how I operate, and if I can, it’s going to be a long, slow, probably painful process. I wouldn’t even know where to start. I’m not sure I’m up for it. The way I work has served me pretty well so far.”
Yes, Brian, the process of changing ourselves takes time and consumes energy. Anyone who’s overcome an addiction, or had to lose weight or change eating habits in order to address a health problem, can tell you that changing ingrained habits is a slog. Henry David Thoreau recognized this when he said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”
But what both Brian and Thoreau failed to acknowledge was a different spin on Thoreau’s words: “The value of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” We don’t change unless we have motivation – either a ‘pain reliever’, or a ‘gain creator’.
Studies of how people change suggest that several factors need to be in place in order to begin the hard process of change:
- Awareness –Brian now had this element.
- Motivation or desire – Brian’s motivation was not complete. After all, his current modus operandi had actually been working for him, and the upside seemed esoteric.
- Process – as Brian acknowledged, he didn’t know where to start, or how to go about effectively changing himself. Without a process, he lacked confidence that he could even accomplish the change.
- Reinforcement – Brian would need reinforcement that his laborious efforts to change were paying off.
When you, like Brian, are faced with feedback that suggests a makeover, what steps can you take to get yourself past the awareness stage and onto a track that leads to real change?
- Get more data to inform your motivation. Ask questions about both the risks of not changing, and the benefits of altering your style. “What, if any, impact might this have on my promotability?” “Is this likely to affect my performance ratings now or in the foreseeable future?” “Is this causing any relationship ruptures that you see as damaging my good reputation?” “Do you see anyone holding back on giving me great assignments because of these style concerns?” “What doors might it open for me if I am able to change this style – doors that may not be open now?” “If I can make this change, what kinds of additional projects might I be able to take on?” “What would you say are the most prized styles and behaviors in this organization?” And also ask yourself an important question, “Is today’s Brian who I really want to be for the long term? In what ways would I feel better about myself and gain confidence if I made these changes?”
- Begin to outline your process for change. Take a first step. That’s the important part of changing. And the first step is to cut through some of the brain clutter to get to a clear picture of what success would look like. Work with a coach or mentor to define just two key routine behaviors you would like to change, and what you would be doing differently. “When facing a feeling that I’ve got to make a decision, I will stop and ask three people if they believe we’re ready to make the decision, and if the majority say no, I will get a new negotiated target date for the decision and drive instead toward getting the information needed to make the decision.” Those kinds of concrete goals will help you to feel an increased sense of command over your own destiny. Then design the rest of your process, which should include:
- Informing people of your concrete goals, and asking for their help in holding you to them – and also for letting you know when you’re doing it right.
- Defining the barriers to changing, and what actions you’ll take to reduce them.
- Identifying support systems for addressing situational questions – who will you turn to when you really don’t know exactly how to improve on your old habits?
- Identifying how you’ll recognize progress – another 360 feedback in six months? Conversations with colleagues you trust to give honest feedback?
- Formalize your intentions. Two things help to cement us to our good intent: writing it down (the act helps to hardwire the intentions into your brain’s preferences for action), and telling others (it’s harder to disappoint others than to disappoint ourselves).
Those steps, as Thoreau pointed out, are the price we pay for our change. But really, they are an investment in our future. Like saving for retirement, you’ll be richer later on if you start investing now.
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant
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