The Truths of Behavioral Change

As a coach, I’ve been helping leaders achieve change in behavior for more than 35 years. My process of helping is simple. I listen to my clients’ vital stakeholders — colleagues, direct reports or board members — then I go over the feedback with my clients.

My clients take ultimate responsibility for the change. If they succeed, I get paid. If the key stakeholders do not see change, I don’t.

That doesn’t diminish the importance of two immutable truths.

First, meaningful change is hard. It’s hard to initiate change, and harder to stay the course. Adult change is the most difficult things for sentient human beings to accomplish.

If you think I’m overstating this, answer this question: What do you want to change? It could be something major, such as your weight, job or career. It could be something minor, such as changing your hairstyle or the wall color in your house.

We can’t admit that we need to change — either because we’re unaware that a change is desirable, or we’re aware but have reasoned our way into excuses that deny our need for change.

We do not appreciate inertia’s power. Given the choice, we prefer to do nothing. But through a simple process emphasizing structure and self-monitoring, I can provide the kick-start that triggers and sustains change.

We don’t know how to execute a change. There’s a difference between motivation, understanding and ability. We may bemotivated to lose weight, but we lack the nutritional understanding to stick with a diet.

On the contrary, we have understanding but lack motivation. One of the central tenets here is that our behavior is shaped — positively and negatively — by our environment, and that a keen appreciation of our environment can lift our motivation, ability, understanding and confidence.

Secondly, no one can make us change unless we truly want to. Change has to come from within. It can’t be forced upon.

I didn’t absorb this simple truth until my 12th year in the “change” business. By then I had done one-on-one coaching with more than 100 executives. As I reviewed my failures, one conclusion leapt out: Some people say they want to change, but they don’t really mean it.

Not long after this revelation, I was asked to work with Harry, the chief operating officer of a large consulting firm. Harry was a smart, hardworking alpha male. He was habitually disrespectful to his direct reports, driving several of them to work for the competition. This development rattled the CEO, hence the call to me to coach Harry.

Harry talked a good game, assuring me that he was eager to get started and get better. I interviewed his colleagues and direct reports, even his wife and teenage children. They all told the same story. Despite his abundant professional qualities, Harry had an overwhelming need to be the smartest person.

As Harry and I reviewed his feedback, he claimed to value the opinions of his co-workers and family members. Yet whenever I brought up an area for improvement, Harry would explain how his behavior was justified.

Fortunately I remembered my earlier lesson: Some people say they want to change, but they don’t really mean it.

It was dawning on me that Harry was using our work together as an opportunity to display his superiority. By our fourth meeting, I gave up the ghost. I told Harry that my coaching wouldn’t be helpful to him and we parted ways.

I often call up my time with Harry as an example that, even when altering our behavior represents all reward and no risk, we resist change.

Behavioral change does not have to be complicated. Don’t be lulled into dismissiveness because my advice sounds simple. Achieving meaningful change may be simple.

 But simple is far from easy.