Why don’t we do what we know we should?

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Think about it — quitting smoking, losing weight, exercising, earning additional educational credentials, developing better relationships with our spouses, children, coworker or clients — all of these are ideal behaviors that should logically lead to greater health, success and happiness in our personal and professional lives. Yet, most of us are resistant to making the necessary changes needed to achieve these behavioral goals.

The Problem
We often experience the same type of resistance when faced with making difficult decisions at work requiring us to adopt behaviors that are out of our comfort zone. For example, how many of you have ever been in a business relationship that you knew wasn’t really working and probably didn’t have a future, such as an employee not living up to your expectations or a partnership that wasn’t a good fit?

You are reluctant to confront the problem for fear of an awkward or negative outcome. Just when you finally decide you have had enough and are ready to address these issues, the situation appears to resolve itself: your sales rep meets her quota, your assistant is more consistent in his attendance and your partner brings in a large new account.

Everything seems improved and you begin to wonder why you were upset in the first place. So you avoid potential conflict and opt to do nothing. The situation just doesn’t seem bad enough to go through the discomfort that would result from having a difficult conversation, replacing someone on your team or dissolving a partnership. You are leery that things will continue to remain positive, but you are temporarily relieved and hopeful the situation will resolve itself. Why is that?

The fact is, doing things differently requires changing your approach, and change is hard. Furthermore, learning the skills to maintain these behavioral changes over time is even harder. It often takes getting to a breaking point to ignite the necessary desire to push us into action. Unfortunately, this reactionary approach of waiting until things are untenable to initiate a response can result in you not only feeling out of control, but it may also diminish your role as a leader in your organization. The key to empowering yourself in difficult situations is to learn the skills needed to confidently behave proactively.

The Solution
There are two essential steps in the process of initiating difficult behavior change: preparation and action. In the preparation phase we focus on thinking through the decision to engage in a new behavior. In the action phase we focus on learning the complex behaviors that are necessary to successfully accomplish our objective.

Preparation Phase
The goal of preparation is to anticipate and analyze the impact of our actions on ourselves and others. Asking yourself the right questions can give you insight into your own perspective and possible resistance to changing your approach. By shifting your thinking from certainty to curiosity you can cognitively prepare yourself to make the adjustments required to effectively resolve a difficult business situation.

Take a moment to answer the following questions. They can serve as a guide as you assess your willingness to experience the distress that typically results from engaging in behaviors that are out of your comfort zone.

• What do I want?
• What are my choices?
• What assumptions am I making?
• What am I responsible for?
• What is the other person thinking, feeling, needing and wanting?
• What am I missing or avoiding?
• What is possible that I haven’t thought of before?
• What action steps make the most sense?
• What can I do differently and what am I willing to do differently to resolve the situation?
• How can I turn this into a win-win situation for everyone?

Action Phase
In the action phase we focus on learning the complex behaviors that are necessary to accomplish our objective. There are three critical elements required to successfully make this type of behavioral change: desire, determination and dedication. You have to want to make the change, be willing to do the hard work involved in change, and be consistent in your changes over time.

Once you have assessed your cognitive attitude, it’s time to be proactive in your interactions. A key to consider in this process is we can never directly modify another person’s behavior; however, they are forced to act differently in response to our changed behavior.

For example, in a leadership role you need to be predictable, consistent and accountable in your behavior. If you always avoid conflict and never give feedback to employees, they will probably not respond to your requests — because there are no consequences for their behavior. Conversely, if you start to regularly hold people accountable and have discussions with them about their performance, they will learn to take you seriously and react accordingly.

Another important concept to keep in mind is that all complex behavior is simple behavior combined. In order to embrace change you must drill down a new behavior into as many simple steps necessary for you to feel comfortable. For example, if you want to assertively confront an employee and that is not typical behavior for you, you need to prepare for each specific step required. Such as:

• Write down your concerns so that you can clearly communicate them.
• Identify what your ideal outcome of the conversation would be.
• Rehearse the conversation internally.
• Determine the best setting to have this conversation (i.e. place, time, who should be present).

Additionally, the following are some communication tools to consider when crafting a behavioral response that is uncomfortable for you to initiate.

• Use “I” messages-such as “I feel concerned…when you…” Express your feelings and reactions, but don’t assume you know the other person’s feelings or motives.
• Describe behavior, provide objective data, and do not attack the person.
• Be prepared to listen non-defensively and hear the other person’s perspective.
• Acknowledge the other person’s feelings and perspective — even if you don’t agree with it.
• Avoid using global generalizations like, “you always” or “you never.”

By incorporating these behavioral principles and communication tools in your action plan, it will increase the likelihood of a successful outcome. Remember, the goal is to minimize your discomfort, not eliminate it. Being uncomfortable might not be such a bad thing. As a matter of fact, experiencing discomfort is often the first step in making the changes necessary to achieve the next level of success.


This article was originally published in the Gulf Coast Business Review.

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