Most executives are tasked with trying to implement change. In reality, you cannot change results in an organization without individuals implementing new ways of operating. Changing ingrained habits is the most challenging aspect.
People in Great Britain drive on the left side of the road, but visitors from North America proclaim: “These people drive on the wrong side of the road! This doesn’t feel right!”
Motorists in Great Britain drive on a different side of the road. This experience doesn’t feel right to foreign drivers; therefore, to them it must be wrong!
But everything that feels wrong isn’t always wrong—it’s just different. This is a distinction that most people never make, so for them change is hard.
Most of us fall into the trap of replaying old experiences and the strong feelings attached to them. Managers are often baffled at how deeply entrenched habits can become and struggle with their change initiatives.
In my early school days, I was doing a math problem on the blackboard when my teacher yelled out: “Mather, you’re better than that, now smarten up!”
My throat went dry, my face got red—I couldn’t think. I stumbled through oral book reports feeling foolish as I felt my face turn bright red again and again. My hands shook and a strange quiver appeared in the muscles of my right leg. I panicked.
For years I mentally replayed these and similar experiences. My behaviour was based on mentally revisiting these old feelings thousands of times. I gave myself plenty of unnecessary grief.
I made a giant leap by attaching my “panic” to the act of speaking in public, and from that “decision” on, I avoided public speaking like the plague.
Over the years, those old memories resurfaced. Worse still, my body recreated the appropriate physiological conditions (sweaty palms, increased heart rate, nausea, quivering muscles, flushed face, etc.), and my mind responded to those “feelings” with panic.
Almost everyone has similar experiences, and as a result hesitate to actively engage in important business meetings or presentations. Happily, this cycle can be broken; otherwise, I would not have been able to spend over 40 years as a professional speaker.
Habits form through repetition, but unsuccessfully trying to replace old habits with productive new ones leads to beliefs such as the following:
• You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
• People resist anything new.
• There is a natural resistance to change.
People make changes all the time and rarely resist them. In organizations, people tend to resist change they perceive is forced upon them. Resist the temptation of initiating “change.” Focus on desired outcomes and change will evolve naturally.
Changing habits, as difficult as it may seem, is well within each individual’s control. It takes, as athletes tell us, reps—repetition of effective competencies.
The problem is accepting how habits form and changing them by choice. Many organizations make the mistake of trying to train people using simple information-giving processes. Without the repetition of new behaviours, nothing of value happens.
This leads to the common belief that training doesn’t “stick.” As one philosopher put it, “Most people don’t change their mind, they just rearrange their prejudices.” By definition, habits are “stuck.”
Any effort to change behaviours requires focused repetition of desired actions. Practice does not make perfect. Focused practice makes perfect.
At first, new habits never “feel” right. Have people report their success with changed behaviours in small groups. Reinforce changes using specific, repeated feedback.
The most effective feedback is direct, specific, and in real time. As new habits entrench themselves old ones will simply fade away—for good.