Learning By Trying To Do Something Different

Action is a good door into learning. We coaches and consultants often focus on getting you leaders to reflect and gain insight on your style and your impact and your inner conflicts – and that has its place. But when you think about your development as a leader, isn’t the point to become able to take new actions that lead to more of the outcomes you value?

A good coaching conversation, for me, gets very concrete about what you are trying to accomplish, and what actions and choices might help you get there. That doesn’t mean I’m completely disinterested in helping you understand your style, your impact, your inner conflicts, your purpose.

But I have found that the best way to help a leader understand (and change) her belief systems and style patterns, is through taking new action and then reflecting on that experience. In abstract reflection or discussion, you can easily fool yourself. It’s much harder to fool yourself in action. Your approach to concrete work challenges exposes your true thinking process, and the underlying beliefs that hinder your growth, in a way that no amount of discussion can do.

If you are trying to develop yourself as a leader, the same principle applies. To understand yourself and build your effectiveness, try to do something different, and see what you can learn from it. (And, if you’re engaged in a lot of self-analysis, but you’re not trying to do something different, you might ask yourself how this stance is keeping you safe and avoiding change.)

Here are some steps you can take, to walk yourself through this process.

1-What is the outcome you are trying to accomplish?

What’s the challenge that’s living under your skin right now? Are you trying to address a sticky employee performance issue? Sell a new project to an existing customer? Influence your boss to adopt an idea you have? Get more proactive problem-solving out of your team?

2-Where do you get predictably stuck in accomplishing this outcome?

What actions have you taken that haven’t helped you succeed? What have you considered doing differently, what have you avoided doing, what might you do, that might help you succeed? The stuck place is where the rubber meets the road, developmentally speaking. What you need to learn right now begins in that place.

3- What could you do or say that’s the opposite of what you normally do?

This is a small, deliberate step outside your comfort zone, for purposes of seeing what happens.

  • If you’re usually focused on advocating your ideas in a team problem-solving session, but you’re concerned that you’re dominating the conversation – next time, try focusing on others’ ideas, and only add your ideas after others have contributed.
  • If you have been avoiding talking with your client because you don’t have a solution to bring to her – next time, call a meeting simply to better understand  her goals and challenges.
  • If your habit is to jump in and do a task yourself when your employee isn’t performing – next time, don’t do the task, but rather have a conversation with the employee about what’s getting in the way of his performance.

4-Anticipate your resistance.

Doing this new action is likely to make you anxious, for the same reasons that have caused you to avoid it all this time. If you recognize this resistance for what it is, you can sit back and ask yourself just what makes you anxious about doing this? What beliefs or concerns could get in the way? What buttons get pushed? Are you, for example, nervous about how the other person might react? Is the new behavior something you were taught isn’t “appropriate”?

Development theorists Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey refer to taking the action and anticipating the resistance as “Testing The Big Assumption.” The notion is, you avoid doing those scary behaviors because of the bad things you assume will happen – but perhaps a bad thing won’t happen, or it won’t be as bad as you feared, or it may even be a good thing. The only way you will understand is to try.

5-Do the action, and notice what happens.

What happened as you prepared to take the action? Were you anxious, and if so, what was the potential outcome that you were anxious about? How did you feel as you took the action? What was the effect of your action on the situation, the result, and the other people in the scene? Which of your fears materialized, and which did not? What meaning do the new actions have for you now? What did you learn that might change your approach when you encounter similar situations in the future?

As you grow, you are moving away from old belief systems and the actions that flow from them, and towards new ones. To change your behavior sustainably, you also need to change your thinking. But sometimes, you can jump-start the process by introducing a new, slightly-anxiety-provoking action first, and using that to loosen up your ingrained thinking patterns.

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