Change your thinking to change…everything
The most well known, concrete form of behavior change is behavior modification. Remember Pavlov’s dogs? Easy to understand, this time-honored approach to behavior change is favored by parents and companies alike. Rewards and punishments play a central role. They can be tangible, like earning a bonus or losing your allowance, or they can be emotional like “I’m so proud of/disappointed in you”. The approach is popular because it works well with lower level, simple situations. Think young children and workers with simple repetitive tasks.
When it comes to leaders in complex, high-growth organizations, simple behavior modification doesn’t work. For one thing, an external authority figure is required to keep the desired behavior in operation. Without rewards and punishments, employees who are trained just to respond to external stimulus, quickly fall out of the behavior pattern. All this is to say, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play”.
Secondly, the needed behaviors are much too complex to reward or punish, and the pace is too fast for those rewards or punishments to be applied in a timely fashion that effectively reinforces the desired behaviors.
Behavioral training alone does not make for lasting change in complex situations. Even for those high-level leaders who are intrinsically motivated to change their ways, human nature tends to take over with well-worn behavior patterns trumping new ways of operating. Especially under stress, even leaders with the best of intentions tend to fall back on their long held approaches.
But help a leader change the way they are thinking about a situation and, “ Voila!,” new behavior naturally follows. For example, when leaders think of colleagues as competitors, naturally aggressive behaviors ensue. When leaders think of colleagues as partners, more collaborative behaviors are immediately visible.
To help executives develop long lasting and impactful behavior change, uncovering deeply held thinking is required work. Once the thinking is surfaced, new perspectives can be explored, practiced, and adopted. And from this mental practice, new behaviors that were previously hard to sustain, now fall into place and remain in place with much less effort.
The key to this approach is uncovering the thinking that is influencing behavior. Thinking is often deep-seated and buried under strong emotions. It requires a skillful coach and trusted partner to gently scrape away years of unconscious reinforcement of outmoded thinking. Once long-standing patterns of thinking are illuminated, the possibility of profound change is at hand.
Next time you are having trouble changing your behavior, instead of trying to instill a new habit with rewards and punishments, look deeper and examine your thinking. You may be surprised by what you find in the depths of your own mind.