Have you ever tried changing a behavior and no one noticed you were different? It’s not uncommon.
Jim was a “hands-on boss.” He had high standards and his team performed well. However, they depended on him for almost all decisions, and as a result he worked long hours and on weekends. The eye-opener came when he missed an important baseball game where his son scored the winning run. His kids were growing up fast, and he was missing out. He knew his people were capable of more, so he began delegating and stopped checking up on them. As the weeks passed, he was surprised that his team kept knocking on his door and his phone kept ringing.
Colleen was constantly complaining about a man in her department who often didn’t follow through on responsibilities. After getting feedback that her teammates thought her negativity was the major problem on the team, she stopped her complaints. She was surprised that during breaks, these same teammates started bringing up the subject of the latest problems with this man, almost like they were enticing her to jump back in the fray.
Has this ever happened to you? Did you ever get feedback that you were too critical or didn’t listen enough or were not a team player… changed your behavior, and it didn’t make any difference?
Why does this happen?
- In part the answer lies in physics. Newton’s Third Law to be exact. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Or as Kurt Lewin described in his Force Field Theory, the status quo is maintained by equally opposing forces. The more you try to change, the more the system pushes back to keep things the same.
- Often your actions serve a purpose that no one is consciously aware of. Although Jim’s direct reports didn’t like being managed so closely, they were spared the stress of juggling priorities and managing team deadlines. In Colleen’s case, who was going to hold the slacker on the team accountable if she stopped complaining, and who would make management aware of what was going on?
- People continue to see what they expect to see. In other words, sometimes they just don’t notice you’ve changed your behavior. We are creatures of habit and fall into patterns of perception as well as patterns of behavior. It also might be that your new behaviors are tentative or awkward. After all, if you were skillful at it, you’d probably have been doing it all along.
- People don’t trust that you’ve really changed. If you’ve acted a certain way for a long time, people might not trust that you’ll continue in this new way. They think you’ll revert to your old behaviors. And quite possibly they’ll be right. Not because you don’t have good intentions, but because new behaviors need to be supported and nurtured as your skills grow.
As the forces of physics push back on us, we can come to believe that change wasn’t possible and slip back into our old patterns.
It can feel like an “either/or” situation – either resist or revert. Resisting wears you out and is not sustainable over the long-term. But instead of giving up, here are 5 things you can that provide support for change:
- Inform: If you’re going to try a new behavior, there’s no reason to keep it a secret. Jim’s direct reports didn’t understand his intention was to stop managing so closely. He could have said, “I’m going to try a new management style. I want to delegate more and let you run with the ball without supervising so closely.”
- Engage: Ask for feedback. Enlisting people to help you invests them in supporting your change. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Jim could have said, “I’d like your help. You know it’s a big change for me, so I might slip up sometimes. If I do, I’d appreciate your bringing it to my attention.”
- Understand: Understand that changing your behavior will not only affect others, it will impact the entire system. There will be pressure on you to revert. Notice the pressure, but don’t react to it.
- Allow: Allow others to step into the space that you once filled. You might need to wait awhile for someone to venture into it. And they might not fulfill the role you played as well as you did, especially initially, because they will need to learn new behaviors and skills. Have patience.
- Acknowledge: Put it on the table. Talk about what is happening and changing in a non-judgmental way. Acknowledging makes it possible for everyone to participate consciously and provides support for everyone as you develop new ways of being together.