Although the words “change” and “leadership” go hand-in-hand, and every performance improvement is itself a change, very few leaders know much about the process of change. The stakes here are high, as failed change and/or improvement initiatives are frustrating, costly, and energy-depleting for everyone involved!
In search of a sustainable solution, I recently took a deep dive into the intricacies and mechanics of change with my friend—and behavioral change expert—Gina Mollicone-Long. Among numerous valuable insights, I discovered why it’s critical for leaders to learn and master the process of change, which itself (ironically) never changes.
An engineer by training, Gina is an international best-selling author, in-demand speaker and peak performance coach with a mission to reveal greatness in individuals, teams and organizations. Since 1998, she has trained, coached, or spoken to tens of thousands of people on six continents. Her books, Think or Sink (** free book link below **) and The Secret of Successful Failing are widely read and enjoyed by people around the world.
“The number one quality of a peak performer in any discipline is flexibility of behavior. This is because the person or system with the most flexibility in terms of resources and options will direct the outcome,” Gina said.
Like having extra money in the bank during a recession or spare oxygen tanks on a high-altitude climb, those with the most cognitive and behavioral resources at their disposal have more options and are able to exhibit flexibility when it counts most, giving them an advantage over others.
She continued: “It follows logically that peak performers must constantly learn new skills and increase their behavioral resources to effectively respond to changing circumstances and achieve the best possible outcomes.”
In other words, peak performers—including leaders—must always be learning and changing!
To understand how to accelerate change and increase behavioral flexibility, we’ll explore the five-stage process of change and then define two prerequisite requirements for any change to occur.
“The whole goal of increased performance is to change faster and with less effort,” Gina said.
It’s important to understand that all change is neurological, which means that true change creates both different behaviors and results. Gina warns: “Wanting to change isn’t change! There are no shortcuts, and the process of change consists of five stages regardless of what you are changing.”
The five stages, adapted from Gina’s book Think or Sink, are reflected in the diagram below:
In your comfort zone, change isn’t possible because there’s nothing to drive it. You don’t know what you don’t know, and things seem perfectly fine as they are. There is no movement in this stage because there is no readiness for change.
Here’s how Gina describes the comfort zone: “Let’s use the analogy of a newborn baby. A newborn baby cannot learn to walk even if its parents are ambitious and super positive. The baby can’t learn to walk because the baby is not ready; it can’t even hold up its own head let alone walk! There is no readiness therefore there is no movement towards change.”
Key Questions for Leaders:
Movement from your comfort zone to desire begins when something catches your attention and causes you to notice that there is more available. Think of this as a simultaneous building of awareness and capacity.
Gina added: “In the case of the baby, it develops over time. Things like muscle mass, balance, strength, and more. Imagine a miniature person inside the baby’s head with a clipboard monitoring progress. When all the components on the “ready for walking” checklist are completed, then there is readiness to change.”
Stage 2 on the diagram is where desire for change appears, because there is capacity for change. You know that you don’t know how to do something, yet somehow feel ready, and are therefore motivated to move toward it. Desire provides the impetus to break away from your comfort zone and try something new. It is important to point out that when desire for change is initiated, it can never be “un-desired.” Desire indicates readiness for change: You have the requirements, but you don’t have the behavioral sequence figured out.
Gina continued: “The baby is ready to learn to walk and it demonstrates this by pulling itself up on the furniture, however it needs to find the correct sequence that produces walking. Wanting change isn’t change but it is an important step to drive effort and experimentation.”
Key Questions for Leaders:
The going gets tough between Stages 2 and 3! This is where there’s repeated trial and error in an attempt to discover the right behavioral sequence. Change often fails because we give up when we encounter a barrier and return to our comfort zone before we’ve given our all. This is an error. The barrier represents everything you thought you had. If you want to change then you must be willing to give it what it takes: Try, fail, try, fail, then try and fail even more! Gina lovingly nicknamed this part of the model “hell” because Winston Churchill once said, “if you’re going through hell, keep going.” You will either find the correct sequence or you will get feedback that needs to be incorporated into your next attempt. One hack to apply here: If someone else has achieved your desired outcome, learn from them and copy them!
Gina extended the baby example further: “Our baby gets up every time it falls and the miniature person with the checklist inside is tweaking the sequence and refining the strategy for walking.”
Change is difficult for many people because they get stuck between Stages 2 and 3, they give up too soon, and they revert to their comfort zone. There is a prevalent stigma around failure that prevents most people from pushing through their limiting beliefs (and we all have them!). The best way to succeed is to take massive action and keep course correcting using feedback until you achieve your goal. Gina’s advice here: “Don’t ever give up on anything you desire!”
Breakthrough is the Stage where actual, verifiable change occurs. You know that you know, because you’ve done something new and different for the first time. For example, the baby takes its first few wobbly steps without assistance. A new and successful, albeit rudimentary, neural network is formed.
Many erroneously believe that the breakthrough moment is the end of the journey of change. “It’s not, and this is a big mistake,” Gina warned. “Think about the baby. When the baby takes its first steps, you don’t take it down to a busy street corner and assume it’s good to go. There’s more to the process.”
Key Questions for Leaders:
The mastery process is a critical, often missed, segment of the overall process of change. The new neural network requires practice and repetition until it becomes the dominant pattern or habit. Each repetition strengthens the behavior pattern, which must be repeated until you can’t get it wrong.
“Our baby practices walking day in and day out until one day it becomes a confident toddler,” Gina said.
At Stage 4, the new behavior is now the dominant habit and will be your default behavior of choice. Until this Stage is achieved, there is risk of falling back to your former dominant behavior pattern. In addition, beware: We tend to revert to old, more reliable patterns when we are under stress, even if they don’t produce the results that we want.
Gina emphasized: “It is important to notice that our baby can now choose to walk or crawl depending on what the circumstances dictate. The baby has become more flexible in its behavior and is operating at the peak of its ability.”
Key Questions for Leaders:
After even more repetition over time, you’ll reach Stage 5. Named ACME, the Greek word for peak or highest point, it is the new, highest level of performance possible — your peak performance.
That is, until the next desire for change comes along. Then the process must begin again from Stage 1. Because, as music legend Bob Dylan once said: “There is nothing so stable as change.”
Key Questions for Leaders:
There are two requirements for any change to occur. “It doesn’t matter what goal you have or what you want to achieve. If you possess these two qualities, then success with the change you’re seeking will happen,” Gina said.
You must have:
She continued: “Desire is absolutely critical for any change because it’s the energy that pulls you out of your comfort zone.” Desire provides the motivation to try something new and indicates that you are ready for change. “Note how the baby in my example has no desire to change until it is neurologically ready to learn to walk,” Gina said. “Having desire means that you already have what it takes but need to discover the successful sequence of behavior.”
Desire is the product of being ready to tackle a new challenge. You can increase desire by raising the desirability or motivation for the benefits (rewards) of change and clarifying the consequences of failing. In my experience, most leaders fall short by taking this critical step for granted. You must have desire before anything meaningful can happen! The same rules apply to your organization in that every member of your team has to have a real desire, not just an “I’ll go along with this for now…” desire. As the leader, you need to motivate them based on their preference of reward- or consequence-based motivation, positioning the change so the gain of the outcome outweighs the pain of undergoing change.
Willingness is the other required prerequisite because you must be willing to give what it takes. Here’s Gina: “You have to be willing to go beyond your perceived limits and dig deeper. You must be willing to fall down and get up. If you use a coach or a guide to achieve something that you’ve never achieved before, then willingness also equals coachability. You have to be willing to follow the coaching and do things differently.”
Cultivating willingness in yourself involves making a commitment and creating accountability to keep moving no matter what. Have a clear vision of the outcome, focus on what you want, take massive action, and be flexible along the way. Gina added: “Creating willingness in an organization is similar, requiring a unified, clear vision of the big picture and that everyone has clearly defined roles and tasks. From there, it is your responsibility to hold your team accountable to their agreements.”
As with desire, many leaders take this for granted and fail to create proper accountability, which eventually sabotages the whole effort. If holding yourself and others accountable is an area you’d like to improve, you can learn how to create a culture of accountability here.
If you have a persistent problem with some people on your team, build motivation (desire) for the change and increase accountability (willingness) to keep them on track. The change you seek cannot happen if you and your team lack either desire or willingness.
Change can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be.
“I think leaders struggle to understand that all change follows the same five-stage process. I often hear leaders complain about individuals as being the problem, so the solution wrongly seems to depend on whether those people will change. That’s a terribly powerless mindset,” Gina said.
She continued: “When someone doesn’t want to change, there is nothing you can do to change them. However, when someone wants to change, there is nothing you can do to stop them!”
Of course, the same is true for you.
Now, with an understanding of the five-stage process of change and the two requirements for change, you’re equipped to be more flexible in your behavior and more effective in attaining peak performance for yourself and for your team.
To encourage you to continue learning about the process of change, Gina is generously offering my subscribers her book Think or Sink free of charge (and with no strings attached!).
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