Digging Employees Out of a Career Rut

Nobody’s perfect. To put that statistically, 97 percent of employees from VitalSmarts’ Career-Limiting Habits study conducted in April and May of 2011 recognize they have at least one career-limiting habit — an engrained behavior that keeps them from achieving their potential at work. (Editor’s note: the authors work for Vital Smarts). For some, the habit is the barrier between good and great in their roles. For others, it can put them at risk of career stagnation — preventing them from getting the raises and promotions they would have otherwise received. The survey of 972 people found the most common career-limiting habits (CLHs) were: unreliability, an “it’s not my job” attitude, procrastination, resistance to change, negativity and cynicism.

Of 17 CLHs listed in the poll, each of the aforementioned habits received between 9 and 11 percent of respondents’ votes. Other common CLHs included disrespect, short-term focus, selfishness, passive aggressiveness and risk aversion.

The problem is not that employees have CLHs; nearly all employees have at least one. The problem is that few organizations have any success helping people to improve them. Current methods, such as performance reviews, have proven ineffective at creating lasting behavior change. In fact, less than one in five employees report making substantial progress at addressing CLHs. From the boss’ perspective, the situation is even bleaker. Managers report fewer than one in 10 employees show progress in changing their CLHs. And yet, every year talent leaders prod their organizations through time-consuming but largely unproductive efforts to improve performance via the performance review process.

This begs two questions: With so little evidence of a return on investment, why do companies continue holding performance reviews? And is there a better way?

The Willpower Trap
Take Sridhar Raman, for example. A project manager for a large electronics company, Raman’s career-limiting habit was a hot temper. He was an effective individual contributor, and he got his work done on time and to spec. But when the pressure was on, as it often was, and others failed to meet their commitments, he exploded.

“I would … fire arrows out of my mouth. And my emails were even berating,” he said. “I tried to tone down my emotions, but it never worked.” After a frank discussion with his boss, Raman said, “I knew that if I didn’t change, the only place I was going in the organization was out the door.”
The unstated assumption of the performance management process is that what employees need to spur them to greater achievement is simply information and motivation. Raman’s boss told him bluntly where he was falling short — information delivered; and gave him a compelling reason to change — motivation delivered. Yet, like most employees, he didn’t change.

The problem isn’t that employees don’t want to change; they do. And it’s not that bosses aren’t doing their best to help; they are. The problem is both employees and their bosses have a naive view of the forces that shape behavior, which leads them to rely on an anemic strategy to bring about change.

People see change challenges as an issue of willpower. They believe the ability to break free from a CLH depends on their capacity to muster the necessary willpower to succeed. Managers may think, “Some people just don’t want it badly enough. If they had a bit more grit, they’d change.” So, they deliver pep talks, guilt, lectures, threats or other types of verbal gymnastics to help bolster their employees’ willpower. Managers give themselves a pat on the back when they see short-term rehabilitation, but are perplexed when employees’ willpower wilts and they fall back into old patterns. And the cycle repeats.

This cycle is the willpower trap — the mistaken belief that willpower is the prime motivator for human behavior. This view of behavior can lead to simplistic strategies to bring about change. When these strategies fail, they may actually increase the conviction that the person didn’t want it badly enough, which prevents the individual from exploring other possible forces for change.

The Six Sources of Influence
Six sources of influence shape human behavior. These forces act on everyone all the time. Those who succeed at change are often those who recognize and recruit all of these sources to support new and more effective habits. Those who don’t recognize and recruit the sources of influence tend to fail. Think of change like a tug-of-war. Even the strongest person will almost always yield to six others in a tug-of-war. Simply trying harder is pointless when a person is hopelessly outnumbered. The smart money is on those who get the math of the struggle working in their favor.

Source 1 — Personal motivation: Personal motivation is the influence of the pain or pleasure of an action. These impulses shape one’s choices. Most people know their bad habits are often sustained by powerful impulses. But what few understand is the best way to change habits is not to resist impulses, but to change them.

That’s what Raman did. He struggled because in the moment it felt good to tear into someone who was causing him inconvenience or worry. To change these impulses, he had to dissect the self-justifying thoughts that excused lashing out and develop a strategy to change them when he was about to “fire arrows” out of his mouth. In these crucial moments, he had to challenge his villainous view of others and humanize them in a way that made him feel differently toward them. His impulses became his friend rather than his foe.

Source 2 — Personal ability: New habits almost always require new skills. Sometimes the skills are surprising and may seem unconnected with the immediate problem. Raman and his manager concluded that his anger stemmed in part from his inability to hold people accountable before things came to a crisis point. So, he enrolled in a course where he learned to clearly articulate his needs rather than waiting until resentment caused him to attack.

Source 3 — Social motivation: Leaders often send employees off for training assuming they’ll come back changed. They might behave differently in a training environment, but when they return to the same boss, peers, customers and suppliers, they revert to the norms shaped by that social system. Good and bad habits are almost always a team sport. An effective change plan takes into account the way others encourage and reward behavior.

Raman made a concentrated effort to spend more time with those in the office he considered to be effective communicators. It was against the norm in their circles to lash out, and the positive peer pressure was helpful.

Source 4 — Social ability: Others don’t just encourage bad habits — they enable them as well. For example, Raman’s boss enabled his behavior for years by making excuses for his prickly demeanor and trying to smooth over problems with those he offended.

As part of Raman’s change plan, he and his manager agreed to meet weekly to track his progress improving his CLH. The manager made sure to hold him accountable for any behavior not in line with the goals they collectively set. Further, the manager lined Raman up with a mentor to provide advice and support.

Source 5 — Structural motivation: Leaders can rely too heavily on incentives — structural motivators — to influence change. People are often unaffected by the long-term costs of bad habits and the long-term rewards for good behavior. Those who succeed at change invert the economy by bringing the costs of the bad habits and the rewards for good habits closer where they make a bigger difference in guiding choices.

In Raman’s case, the manager tied his CLH improvement to his performance review. If he didn’t achieve his goals around his CLH, he would miss out on quarterly bonuses and annual raises.

Source 6 — Structural ability: Finally, people are often blind to the role their physical environment plays in enabling habits. Often, tools, cues and distance can have a strong impact on the way people behave.

Raman tweaked a few factors in his physical environment to help him with his temper. Since his worst moments occurred when he turned to email to attack his co-workers, he made a hard and fast rule that he would only discuss difficult topics in person — never via email. He also hung reminders in his office to keep himself focused on the changes he was making.

VitalSmarts’ How to Have Influence study, published in 2008 by MIT Sloan Management Review, shows those who use all six sources of influence as part of a performance improvement plan are 10 times more likely to succeed at changing even long-standing problems in their professional or personal lives.

Raman, who went through this process, didn’t change overnight, but he did change. “I’m a different person today. Ask anybody at the office,” Raman said. “Changing was difficult. And so worth it. My future looks a whole lot brighter now.”

21st Century Performance Improvement
Traditional performance management has failed because employees and their bosses have a naive view of the forces that shape behavior, which leaves them unable to bring about change. The aforementioned individual improvement statistics are evidence that the 20th century management strategy of informing and motivating via the performance review process accomplishes little. Further, placing the locus of responsibility for change on the manager is a failure path at the outset. Personal change can only succeed when it is self-directed.

The 21st century performance improvement model must be built on a more robust theory of human behavior, and a healthier model of manager-employee relations. The manager’s job is not to drive change, but to provide tools and support. When employees receive feedback, the most profound barrier to successful change is not a lack of motivation, but a lack of ability. They, and their bosses, tend to be stuck in the willpower trap and need to learn how to self-direct change that will enhance not just their professional but their personal lives as well.

The organization of the future will be one where a dominant value in the culture is self-directed change. Employees will be part of a community that values and supports self-improvement. This will not be a passive process. It will be an active one characterized by transparent, candid feedback — not just in annual rituals from the boss but from peers and direct reports as well. The process will begin as managers coach employees to recognize and engage all six of the sources of influence to unleash their success at change.

Joseph Grenny is the co-founder of VitalSmarts, a corporate training and organizational performance company, and co-author of Change Anything. Chase McMillan is the research and development manager at VitalSmarts. They can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.