Debunking Leadership Myths #10 — Behavior Change Is Hard

The last article in our Debunking Leadership Myths Series challenged the misguided notion that you can—and should—leave your past behind you. If you’ve read all the articles in the series (which starts here), it’s likely that the process of challenging your beliefs required some uncomfortable self-reflection. In sharp contrast, you may find the misconception behind today’s Leadership Myth (#10) to be a pleasant surprise! 

“Behavior change is hard.”

In truth, changing your behavior is not nearly as difficult or complex as you may imagine—if you master the essentials. For example, flying an airplane may seem extremely challenging when you think about it, which my own personal experience validates. When I began flying lessons, I found the cockpit, with all its gauges, lights, levers, and buttons, entirely overwhelming. My flight instructor started with the basics, and we proceeded to build from there – with plenty of repetition and practice. Over time, navigating the skies safely became as easy for me as driving a car and I eventually earned my Instrument Rating, which enabled me to fly in low visibility conditions.

Fortunately, for the most part, changing your behavior as a leader is easier than earning your pilot’s license! In the paragraphs that follow, you’ll discover a few proven strategies to make the process of change as simple and easy as possible.

But first, I need to give you an out. It’s the ultimate shortcut, and it demonstrates that any change is just a mind game. Let’s say you’ve received feedback that you tend to interrupt others in meetings (not uncommon for many leaders I meet) and you’ve decided to act on it.

Here’s the shortcut: JUST STOP DOING IT! 

If you look at the research, it’s literally that simple. But the problem is that we feel so entrenched in our habits that we “need” a more complicated solution, for which countless authors, gurus and consultants will happily charge you.

So try the JUST STOP IT technique – it can’t hurt, might work, and could save you lots of time, energy, and perhaps even money.  For a funny look at this very serious option, here’s a classic Bob Newhart skit (6-minute video) that is a must watch for any leader contemplating behavior change.

Now let’s explore some other options to make change easier, beginning with the two basic mechanisms of behavior change: You can either “think your way into being” or you can “be your way into thinking.”

Thinking your way into being is a slower mode of change that also requires significant mental effort. Say, for example, that you struggle to deliver direct feedback to your team. You could address this particular obstacle by addressing how you think about it. That may mean reading a book on how to effectively provide constructive criticism or choosing a set of positive affirmations (yes, they work) to adopt the mindset of someone who delivers effective direct feedback. The idea here is that with enough thought and attention, you’ll change your mind—and your behavior will follow suit.

While thinking your way into being is valid and effective, it requires both discipline and time. For most business leaders, the time requirement renders this particular model less than ideal, as both time and patience are often in short supply. 

 On the other hand, being your way into thinking offers a faster alternative. Another apt name for this technique is “fake it ‘till you make it.” For example, if you want to improve your ability to have direct conversations with your team, you would simply emulate the desired behaviors until they become natural.

Neurological research has demonstrated this to be true. In one experiment, psychologists had participants either smile or frown before completing an emotional survey. Those forced to smile scored better than those forced to frown before evaluating their mood, even though the only difference between the two groups was their pre-survey action. When you need to change your behavior—and do so quickly—take a cue from Nike and “just do it.”

The process of being your way into thinking begins with some thought-based preparation. For instance, you could reach out to a mentor who is great at giving feedback and ask her for a moment-by-moment breakdown of what she does when one of her direct reports needs a course correction. You may ask her what’s going through her mind when she walks through the door to begin the meeting, or how she opens up the conversation once they sit down. Her answers will provide insight into her perspective, and thus, its impact on her actions. While you may be nervous about ruining someone’s day, she might believe that she is providing a real gift in the form of excellent coaching that will allow her report to reach their potential.

 As you attempt to be your way into thinking, the next step is to emulate her thought patterns and behaviors immediately. This is the “just do it” part! It will undoubtedly be uncomfortable at first, but you’ll learn from the process in real time—and before long, you’ll notice a tangible impact on the way you think and act. You’ll also benefit from the relatively immediate results of your new behaviors.

There is another technique that can help you take action when doing so feels difficult, based on data from three German Researchers: Brandstatter, Langselder, and Gollwitzer. In 2001, they conducted a fascinating study on influencing behavior. They asked people housed in a drug rehab facility to prepare resumes to be used after they completed the program. Participants were divided into two groups. One group—the control—was asked to draft their resumes by the end of the day; they weren’t given any further instruction.

Meanwhile, the second group was asked to make a plan to complete their resumes by formulating an “if/when, then” statement. An “if/when, then” statement names a cue and the behavior it will provoke. For this group, it went as follows: “When I finish my lunch today and clear my table space, then I will begin to work on my resume.”

The results were astounding. None of the control group members finished their resumes, while a remarkable 80 percent of the “if/when, then” group completed theirs. The statement itself had a tremendous impact on the outcome.

“If/when, then” statements work because they prime you to notice a cue. The experiment group agreed in advance to do what they were asked (complete their resumes), and specifically when they would do it (after they finished their lunches). Behavior is governed by consistency. By our very nature, we tend to respond to cues in alignment with our stated intentions. If you tell yourself you’ll work on your resume when you finish your lunch, the rule of consistency dictates that you’ll follow through.

This same, simple method will work for you as well!

Behavior change isn’t necessarily difficult, rather we make it challenging because we believe that’s how it must be. The two techniques we’ve outlined – being your way into thinking and using “if/when then” statements – work quite effectively to accelerate whatever change you seek.

Oh – and don’t forget the elegant simplicity and potential of the JUST STOP IT technique, as it’s the most rapid of all!

This marks the end of our Debunking Leadership Myths Article Series. Over the past several months, we’ve debunked the top ten myths that prevent business leaders from getting things done and more quickly achieving the results they seek. In each article, I’ve provided Activators and tools to help you overcome the flawed thinking and/or behaviors that hinder your success.

If you would like to take a deeper dive into the unconscious mechanisms that interfere with your thinking and results, check out my book Activators: A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done. Inside, you’ll find more of the neuroscience, behavioral research, case studies, and insights from my coaching practice, along with assessments and tools to help you close the gap between the leader you are today and the leader you aspire to become.

You can find all of the Activators tools and assessments, available for free download, here.

Finally, as you change your own perspective and advance toward your goals, don’t forget to engage your team in the process. They will be an invaluable resource as you move forward, reminding you of the myths we’ve debunked and the commitments you’ve made. Combined with deliberate practice, you’ll be on your way to powerful change in your behaviors and results.

Stay tuned for the next edition of my next newsletter, where I’ll debunk an eleventh, bonus leadership myth for you: “Everything should be predictable.” 

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

Avoid Making This Strategic Mistake in a Recession

“We are currently in the midst of the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate has hit a record high, and the International Monetary Fund is predicting a drop in our GDP of nearly 6 percent this year. If this is purely a supply shock, then our economy should recover quickly once restrictions on economic activity are lifted. On the other hand, according to a report from the Becker Friedman Institute of the University of Chicago, 42 percent of the jobs lost so far in this crisis could be permanent losses. If that is the case, then this supply shock will turn into a demand crisis much like the Great Recession of 2008, and recovery will be much slower. With so much uncertainty, what should a strategist do…”

The Difference Between Amateurs and Professionals

“Why is it that some people seem to be hugely successful and do so much, while the vast majority of us struggle to tread water?

The answer is complicated and likely multifaceted. One aspect is mindset—specifically, the difference between amateurs and professionals. Most of us are just amateurs.

What’s the difference? Actually, there are many differences…”

A Triumph of Avoiding the Traps

“When you look at Oprah Winfrey’s multi-decade run through daytime talk, most of it at No. 1, — it’s easy to be impressed by what she did to make it happen. But her longevity and success probably has more to do with what she did not do…

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