It’s hard to change your behavior. It’s even harder when you try to change a behavior that you believe has been successful for you in the past. Yet every day, in the business world, thousands of men and women are counseled to do just that. They are told that if they want to progress in their careers they need to modify various aspects of their behavior. Since their ambitions usually stretch beyond their current positions, they are faced with the dilemma of trying to change the target behaviors in the prescribed directions. Yet, the majority of these efforts will fail.
Any successful effort to change behavior has to come from within the person. Outside force is seldom effective long-term. When the pressure fades the old behavior patterns tend to reemerge. This isn’t to say that the career advice isn’t well intentioned; it usually is. But, good intentions don’t necessarily translate into an effective strategy. My work in coaching executives has led me to wrestle with uncovering the essential elements for supporting personal change in the business environment. In the discussion that follows, I will lay out what I have come to believe are the sure-fire steps for achieving significant personal change.
A dedicated commitment to change:
First and foremost, personal change must be predicated on a dedicated personal commitment to change the behavioral pattern or habit. Put another way, without being personally dedicated to change it will not happen. This may seem self evident but it isn’t for most people. They sign on to someone else’s agenda for them and are later surprised when things ultimately stay the same. If you expect to see change the desire to behave differently must be sought through a dedicated commitment to practice the desired behavior. Make the commitment to behave differently at the end of the process.
Identify role models:
In order to facilitate the change you seek, identify appropriate role models. The nearer to home they are, the better, although even fictional characters who exhibit the traits you seek will work. It is easier to adapt to new habits and patterns if you have a model to emulate. Observe and study these characters. Recognize what they do that you don’t when they are in familiar situations. See how they do it and then practice their tactics. Identify how success seems to flow from these tactics.
Act “as if”:
Role playing is an excellent way to acquire a new behavior. It may feel strange, at first, but, stick with it. Go through each day acting as if you possess the trait you’re hoping to acquire. It is the practice that’s important. You are trying to build new mental muscles and repetition is required. You’ll find that it becomes more natural, more habitual, as you make practicing a part of your repertoire. Pause before you act and ask, “What would my role model do?” in this situation and do your best to adopt the desired tactics.
Abandon “Don’t do’s” for “Do insteads”:
Just trying to quit a bad habit or an ineffective behavior is seldom successful. If your old behavior represents the best you know how to do in a situation, then unconsciously it will resurface under stress or in familiar situations. Identify what you want to do instead of the old behavior. Replace it with some version of the trait that you’re building. Choose a new behavior that is incompatible with the old behavior. It is easier to “do something different” than it is to abandon an old habit when there is nothing to replace it.
Set intermediate goals as well as final criteria for success:
Pursuing a distant goal can be dispiriting unless you can mark the intermediate successes. Identify, at the onset of your efforts, what changes or events you should see as you move from where you are to where you want to be. These signs may be a lessening in the number of times the negative traits surface. They may be an increase in the frequency of the desired “do instead” behaviors. Or they may be seen in the rise of totally new skills in your repertoire. Note these changes and reinforce yourself for your progress.
Pay attention to your “self-talk” and change your script:
We maintain much of our familiar behaviors with the help of our internal dialogue, the interpretations we make of events, the conclusions that we draw for the consequences of our actions. Talk positively to yourself about your progress. Affirm your efforts. Avoid the negative messages that you give yourself as things unfold. You can learn how to control your thoughts if you practice building the skill to do so.
Build time into your day:
As you may have deduced by now, practice and rehearsal are critical to behavioral change. In order to ensure that you’ll do the practice required, set aside time to do that work. Often change efforts stall because we get caught up in the moment and lose sight of longer-term goals. We get distracted by the moment. One way to counter this tendency is to deliberately set aside time during the day to consciously attend to your change goals. Mentally prepare for important conversations, meetings, and tasks. Prepare to perform in the ways you are trying to make your own.
Ask for and listen to feedback:
We live a lot of our lives on automatic pilot. We don’t deliberately stop and consider each gesture or behavioral choice we make moment to moment. This is an efficient strategy for handling familiar situations, but it tends to lessen the opportunities for change. Concomitantly, we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t recognize where our blind spots lie. Therefore, getting help from outside of ourselves can be a critical aid in understanding the impact of our choices. By being open to feedback from outside of ourselves, we keep alive opportunities for seeing ourselves more accurately as we navigate our relationships at work. Not all feedback may be on target, but staying open to it allows us to benefit from accurate feedback that does fit.
When you give yourself permission to act impulsively on your emotions, you are likely to fall back into bad habits. In the workplace, successful leadership is often about choosing a deliberate response to unexpected situations. Take the time to choose your responses to fit the purpose that lies behind your agenda. You can’t do that if you are reflexively venting your spleen. In the workplace your actions should be geared to furthering the goals of the enterprise.
Real change does not come easily. Each misstep or mistake provides you an opportunity to learn and grow, if you have the patience to use them. If instead you interpret a mistake as a reason give up, you will fail. There is wisdom I the old saying, “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right.” Accept your mistakes with humility and use them as opportunities to grow. We’ve come full circle here in that it is your dedicated commitment to making the change that sustains your progress. Patience is a skill that builds with practice.
Celebrate your successes:
Finally, take the time to celebrate the progress you make. When you achieve your goals mark your successes with a celebration. Take the time to reflect. Savor your new skills. Readjust your self-image to reflect who you have become rather than dragging around your baggage from the past
Change is hard, but not impossible. Your chances are improved by having a strategy for realizing the change you want to experience. Work your strategy. Practice the skills you seek. Have patience and remember the reasons why you are struggling to change in order to help you to stick with it. Don’t stop your efforts until you have incorporated the behaviors you have worked to make your own. Good luck.