Caught in behaviour that is hard to change

Conventional training holds out the promise of becoming more effective as a manager, leader and communicator. And yet it can fail to deliver long-term behavioural change if it ignores the hidden and seemingly ‘hard-wired’ patterns of thinking and feeling that run counter to the sought-after change. While many folks come to courses expressing a strong wish to improve their time-management or delegation skills for example, when it comes to it they often discover that it is just not that easy. The new skills make perfect sense, and yet applying them in practice is difficult, and it’s not clear to the individual why this is so.

These hidden patterns of thought and behaviour that run counter to change are described by Kegan and Lahey as competing commitments. By taking the time and care to unearth them, give them expression, and understand how they may have been of service in the past, it is possible to start gently shifting them, and creating the space for real change. However, if I ignore these opposing patterns, I am not only failing to serve the individual, I could even be accused of acting unethically, albeit while acting with some benevolence perhaps!

As an example I sometimes work with people with an expressed development need to provide greater authority and direction in their leadership. For some folks, the possibility of developing this is inhibited by what we could call a commitment, albeit a relatively hidden and emotionally-driven one, to be liked by their staff. With deeper exploration it may transpire that underneath their need to remain liked, is a ‘Big Assumption’ that if they were not liked they would in fact be a terrible person. With this hidden belief lurking in the shadows, it’s clear why they would avoid at all costs any behaviour that would put their being liked at risk. While they might be prepared to practice delivering a tough message to a colleague during a role-play on a training course, when it comes to putting it into practice for real, that’s another matter!

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that skills training serves no useful purpose. It clearly does, especially in bringing a common understanding and experience to a large audience. What’s important is to be realistic about change and to allow for the fact that it may take deeper one-to-one coaching to bring about some lasting behavioural changes.

In his book Taming Your Gremlin, Rick Carson describes the so-called Zen Theory of Change. It’s a great description of the challenge of change – especially in relation to those development areas where people are struggling. While the language may sound esoteric, the idea expressed is essential for any of us engaged in developing people:quicksand 3

“I free myself, not by trying to free myself but by simply noticing how I am imprisoning myself in the very moment in which I am imprisoning myself”

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