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Monday, June 04, 2007

Why Is Changing Behavior So Hard?

All leadership comes down to this: changing people's behavior. Why is it so hard?

Science offers some surprising new answers -- and ways to do better.

This from a Fast Company article called "Change or Die."

"Changing people's behavior: It's the most important challenge for businesses trying to compete in a turbulent world, says John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied dozens of organizations in the midst of upheaval: "The central issue is never strategy, structure, culture, or systems. The core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people."

  • As individuals, we may want to change our own styles of work -- how we mentor subordinates, for example, or how we react to criticism. Yet more often than not, we can't."
  • CEOs are supposedly the prime change agents for their companies, but they're often as resistant to change as anyone -- and as prone to backsliding.
  • Conventional wisdom says that crisis is a powerful motivator for change. But severe heart disease is among the most serious of personal crises, and it doesn't motivate -- at least not nearly enough.

So...what works? Why, in general, is change so incredibly difficult for people? What is it about how our brains are wired that resists change so tenaciously? Why do we fight even what we know to be in our own vital interests?

  • Kotter says: "Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people's feelings. In highly successful change efforts (even in organizations that are very focused on analysis and quantitative measurement), people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thought."

There's compelling science behind the psychology of change -- it draws on discoveries from emerging fields such as cognitive science, linguistics, and neuroscience -- but its insights and techniques often seem paradoxical or irrational.

So how to make change really work? Recast the reasons for change. Instead of motivating people with the "fear of failure" or "fear of whatever" - motivate people with a new vision of the "joy of working in a new way" -- convincing them they can feel better, do better - not just work longer. That means enjoying the things that make daily life pleasurable."

Why does this work better? "Joy is a more powerful motivator than fear," Kotter says.

How to do this? Convey passion. Articulate vision. Say it in simple, positive, and emotionally resonant terms.

Interestingly enough: Radical, sweeping, comprehensive changes are often easier for people than small, incremental ones, since "These are choices worth making."

Of course, radical change often isn't possible in business situations. Still, it's always important to identify, achieve, and celebrate some quick, positive results for the vital emotional lifts that they provide. Harvard's Kotter believes in the importance of "short-term wins" for companies, meaning "victories that nourish faith in the change effort, emotionally reward the hard workers, keep the critics at bay, and build momentum. Without sufficient wins that are visible, timely, unambiguous, and meaningful to others, change efforts invariably run into serious problems."

Even when leaders have reframed the issues and reasons for change, it's still vital to give people the multifaceted support they need. (That's a big reason why 90% of heart patients can't change their lifestyles but 77% of one doctor's patients could -- because he buttressed them with weekly support groups with other patients, as well as attention from dieticians, psychologists, nurses, and yoga and meditation instructors. Essentially - this is the benefit of coaching.)

BOTTOMLINE: If we can change, then why don't we? He have spent years learning certain habits, and habits make each of us more specialized. Specialization also instills an inherent "rigidity." The cumulative weight of experience makes it harder to change.

How, then, to overcome these factors?

Be open to learning new ways of working. Unless you really work on it, you won't learn new ways of behaving, new ways of learning. Unless you're willing to learn new things - what you get, will be the same thing you always got.

Mastering the ability to change isn't just a crucial strategy for business. It's a necessity for health. And it's possibly the one thing that's most worth learning.

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