Changing Our Ways

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Change isn’t easy, and science sheds some light on why that is. When we repeatedly think or behave in a certain way, permanent connections in our brains begin to form. Over time these connections become deeply engrained neural pathways. By having these connections “hardcoded” into your brain, you avoid having to form new connections every time you repeat a thought or action. The connection is already there waiting to transmit a signal.

Most of the time, that’s a good thing because those established pathways enable you to execute repetitive functions rapidly and with minimal energy and concentration—subconsciously even. If you have ever learned a second language, you’re familiar with the experience of gradually being able to “think” less when trying to speak in that new language. That is what happens when your brain increasingly translates without you “asking” it to. The more defined and strong those neural pathways, the easier it is to speak in a second language. It’s like mental autopilot.

Like autopilot it can be a great thing in some instances. But in others it can lead to catastrophe.

Sterling Integrators’ coaching philosophy and system is informed by this knowledge of neural pathways and the well-known fact that changing behavior takes a tremendous amount of effort. One of our axioms is that, unless a behavior is completely incompatible with good leadership, we will first try to determine ways to change the environment instead of the individual.

Imagine that Sterling Integrators has a client named Frank who is introverted and not very detail oriented but believes that in order to become a better leader he needs to become an extroverted detail person. We could attempt to help Frank change his behavior. But this would probably be a mistake. A better approach may be to help Frank trade or shift various responsibilities that require a lot of extroversion and attention to detail with or to other people in his organization.

Unlike intensively trying to help Frank change his personality and work style, changing Frank’s environment will solve the problems more rapidly and probably more effectively. At Sterling Integrators, we believe that great leaders come in many different shapes and sizes, so there’s no need to hammer everyone into an identical mold.

As much as possible we want our clients to work and interact with other people in the way that is most natural to them. But sometimes a behavior cannot be worked around or mitigated, and so it must be changed.

Given what we know about the challenges involved in changing one’s behavior, what does Sterling Integrators do? We take a two-pronged approach to behavioral change. The first is what we call a Direct Change Effort and the second is what we call Gravitational Change.

Change Through Direct Effort

By making a concerted effort, applying a lot of energy, and receiving the help of a leadership coach, an individual can modify his behavior in significant ways.

Let’s imagine that Frank also has an empathy problem. His employees see him as emotionally detached and he keeps irritating those who work for him because he doesn’t “get” people. The goal would be to help Frank actually care about all those people working for him and to imagine how each of them might uniquely see the world. As his coach, I would give Frank an assignment to learn one thing about the life of one of his employees each day by engaging that person in conversation regarding something unrelated to work.

Making a resolution to himself is probably not going to be enough to get Frank to follow through with this assignment, so a big part of my job as a coach in such a situation would be to hold Frank accountable and encourage him at our weekly meetings.

Technology can help too. Having Frank download an application, such as Way of Life, onto his iPhone will daily prompt Frank to check a yes or no box depending on whether or not he accomplished his goal. The application will also keep a monthly tally so Frank can see how he’s doing. Slowly, but surely, those old neural pathways in Frank’s brain will start to disintegrate and new ones will form.

Change Through Gravitational Pull

Anything with mass will exert gravitational pull on objects around it. The bigger the object (the sun, for example) and the closer that it is to another object, the more gravitational force it will exert on that object (the earth, for example). Humans have a tendency to be effected by those around them too, in a sort of gravitational way. As my last blog post talked about, we tend to behave like those whom we surround ourselves with. In Frank’s case, I would want to bolster the Change Through Direct Effort strategy, by surrounding Frank with individuals (in the form of text, visual media, and discussions) who display the traits he wants to emulate. Then, it’s only a matter of time before the subtle Gravitational Pull will accelerate the rerouting of those old neural pathways that keep tripping Frank up.

A good leadership coach can help you to discern whether you need to change your ways or your environment and then provide you with the advice, accountability, and encouragement to make it happen.

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