CHANGE IS HARD.
We at Teleos are in the business of helping leaders shift the way they lead, in ways that better enable them to accomplish important goals. One insight that’s been reinforced over the years is that it’s hard to sustainably change behavior on important dimensions. Our experience is validated by a deep body of research by leadership thinkers, such as Chris Argyris’ study of how hard it is for high-performing professionals to learn.
If you are a leader who is committed to changing in some important way, but you are finding that change difficult to realize, it can be helpful to understand why. In the words of Ron Heifetz, changing leadership behavior is an “adaptive challenge” – it requires a shift in how you think about the world. Without a shift in thinking, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to shift how you act.
You can tell you are dealing with adaptive challenge when change makes you anxious. The leadership skills we teach – such as influencing, conflict resolution, and engaging with performance gaps – fall into this category. These skills challenge the ways that most of us have been taught to operate by most of the dominant institutions in our lives, including schools, families, and work organizations. For example, most of us learn to defer to authority figures, based on assumptions that deferring will lead to good outcomes for us, while questioning authorities or expressing a diverging viewpoint will lead to bad outcomes. These assumptions are so deeply embedded that we typically don’t even notice them – nor do we notice the ways in which the assumptions limit our range of choice.
HOW DO YOU SHIFT YOUR THINKING?
Fortunately, there’s a structured process that you can use to understand and transcend the places where you get stuck in changing. This process is adapted from the work of Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey.
1-Define your goal, and confirm its importance to you.
What is the behavior you want to develop – the specific change you want to make? Do you truly believe that changing on this particular dimension would make you significantly more effective? If you’re not truly committed to the goal, it will be hard to sustain your energy through the process of removing the roadblocks. I’ll use this sample case, from a leader I’ll call “Frank,” to demonstrate each of the steps.
I want to more explicitly express and negotiate what I need from my leader in order to deliver the results expected of me.
2-Describe the things you’re currently doing, or not doing, that directly conflict with that goal.
Though you care about making the change described in Step 1, you’re not doing it. What are all the things you do instead, that keep you from reaching your goal? Here are the current behaviors Frank identified.
When I’m in meetings with my leader, I focus on sharing update information and asking informational questions.
I don’t talk directly about my expectations of my leader, or the things I would like her to do differently.
I work extra-hard to deliver results in the absence of the help I’m not asking for.
I talk with other people about my frustrations with my leader.
3-Identify the fear that drives the current behavior.
This step is about recognizing the power of your habits – the reasons those habits continue. Ask yourself, if you imagine stopping the behaviors in step 2, what’s the biggest worry or discomfort that comes up for you? What bad outcome do you worry might happen? Frank identified the following worries.
Being seen as challenging, damaging the good relationship with my leader
Being seen as needy, unable to deliver results without support
Once you identify these fears, it should make perfect sense that you avoid the new behaviors, and stick with your habitual behaviors.
4-Articulate the assumptions underlying that current thinking.
If you look at the fear you’ve identified, it can potentially reveal an important assumption you hold to be true about the world or yourself, without questioning or even recognizing it. This assumption usually relates to the bad outcomes you believe will result if you behave in new ways, or the good outcomes you believe will result if you continue to behave in the habitual ways. The assumption may have to do with what you think others expect from you, or what you think a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person is supposed to do, or what would make you feel valuable in the world. Frank realized that he held the following big assumption.
I assume that initiating a conversation with my boss about my expectations of her would damage my relationship with her, because it potentially would cause her to see me as challenging and/or needy.
5-Imagine ways to “turn-around” your assumption, and design an action to test your assumption.
Once you have surfaced your assumption, the door is open to test the assumption and broaden your thinking. First, you can simply think about ways to over-turn your assumption – to look at the situation, and what you assume would be the outcome of different actions, completely differently. Frank came up with several ways to think differently about his assumption.
My leader wants to know what I need from her and how she can help me be effective.
If I don’t tell her what I expect, I am depriving her of the opportunity to understand.
She would appreciate my concern for delivering results and the courage it took to share my expectations.
Once you have considered different possible outcomes of different action, you are ready to engage in a small and safe initial test of the assumption. Frank’s initial test was this:
Negotiate for support on a specific assignment my leader has just asked me to complete.
In the process of taking action in the face of your anxiety, you gain deeper insight into the validity of your assumption. Frank did his test, and his feared outcome didn’t materialize – instead, he and his leader had a productive conversation. In reflection, he was able to begin re-thinking his assumptions about how he should engage with his leader, what his leader expected from him, and what the outcome would be if he expressed his needs more openly. He realized that he now saw the opportunity to be even more direct with his leader in the future.
And, having worked through this process for himself, Frank was able to use the model to understand and coach others through their own leadership challenges.
What is your most important and difficult leadership improvement goal? Try this process and see if it unlocks new options for effective action.