Grip trip: Four steps for changing problematic behaviors

While Kenning coaches do sometimes help our clients learn how to invent and adopt entirely new behavior patterns, we often are asked to help our clients bring behaviors they already exhibit in one context to a different context.  As Ishan (name changed), an SVP I recently worked with, put it, “My boss, the CIO, tells me I need to be more assertive in steering committee meetings. I feel like I am actually pretty good at being engaged and even challenging with my peers and my teams, but I know what she is talking about.  When I am dealing with our CEO and Board, I feel reluctant to jump in.”

When I asked what seemed like a pretty straightforward question, “So, why don’t you act the way you do with your peers with the executive team?,” Ishan’s answer was at once surprising and predictable: “I guess I don’t want to look foolish or embarrass myself. Speaking up feels risky.”

Rationally, Ishan already knew perfectly well that it was probably much more risky for him to maintain this two-mode split than to bring more of his “working with peers” style to senior team meetings, but he was legitimately unsure why doing so seemed so hard, or at least so unsafe. Clearly there was a sense-making challenge in play that would need to be addressed for him to achieve lasting, self-generative growth as a leader.  At the same time, though, while a strictly behavioral approach might not be sufficient, Ishan did have a reasonably large and straightforward opportunity to simply act more like he already did in some places.

The fundamental process for bringing a part of yourself that you show in one context into another entails the same basic four-step process we recommend for trying on new behaviors to break unhelpful habits:

  • Identifying triggers prospectively
  • Noticing habitual behavior
  • Having a clearly articulated alternative in your mind
  • Reducing the amount of time it takes to go from noticing to producing the alternative.

But these steps look a little different when you, or at least a part of you, already knows what to do.

Identifying triggers prospectively

In our work at Kenning, a “trigger” is simply a set of circumstances that tend to call out unhelpful, reflexive behavior from a client.  Ishan initially described his problematic situations as larger group meetings with very senior executives in which topics he lacked deep expertise in were being discussed.  That proved a useful starting point, but to really develop an effective internal early warning system, Ishan needed at least some notion about what it was about these situations that drove his behavior.

We first considered if it might have something to do with his relationship to authority, meaning that he felt a need to be deferential to superiors. Ishan reflected that his boss had told him several times that he is very good at pushing back on her, and that others in positions of authority had said similar things about their one-on-one interactions. Was the difference in his behavior driven by being in front of a group? Ishan thought that might be part of it, but he could think of a variety of group situations where he was more assertive. We continued to consider different reasons why these trigger situations affected him the way they did: Was it a matter of being around people he knew well vs. people he did not know well? Was it Ishan’s perceived level of expertise as compared to the expertise of others in the room?

Eventually we decided that while a combination of these factors was likely involved, Ishan’s reflexive behavior boiled down to risk aversion. His natural reaction to feeling unsafe was to duck and cover, and he felt profoundly unsafe in situations where he thought someone with power over him might judge him to be foolish. While this hypothesis about the trigger and the sources of its power was really just an initial doorway into Ishan’s sense-making system,  it was robust enough to allow us to identify situations and dynamics that he would have to look out for to break the pattern of retreat.

Noticing habitual behavior

Having established the conditions when an unhelpful behavior might show up, the next step is to keep a watch out. Are you entering (or already in) a situation in which people or dynamics that act as triggers are likely to be present? Are you experiencing thoughts, emotions, or physical responses that often accompany problematic behavior? To use a common phrase for reflexivity, are you in the grip?

Obviously, the ultimate goal is to be able to get out of being in the grip, or better yet, able to avoid getting into it in the first place. But before you can do any of that, you have to be able to notice when you are in it. In Ishan’s case, this might mean developing the ability to pull himself out of a flight response to a perceived risk and recognize, internally, something like: “Hold on… my heart is racing and my mind has fallen into absorb-information mode. I am in a high-stakes Senior Leadership Committee meeting, so there is a chance I am responding to pressure by withdrawing into myself.  Is that what is going on? Is that what I want to do?”.

Having a clearly articulated alternative in your mind

When it comes to behavior change, knowing what you want to stop doing is only half the battle. You also have to know what you want to do instead. Because it is very hard to invent a new behavior in the moment when you are trying to resist falling back on an old habit, imagining yourself using a new behavior ahead of time is essential.

The task is analogous to an athlete visualizing success before a completion, and specificity counts. You want to be able to close your eyes and watch yourself producing the new behavior as if you were watching a film of yourself. What exactly do you say? With what tone and inflection? What do you look like? What messages are your face and body sending? Add to that an observation of your internal states. What are you thinking and feeling? Where in your body do you feel tension, release, or energy? The more complete the picture, the easier it will be to access when you need it.

For Ishan, Plan B, his envisioned alternative behavior, included a technical handhold. He began conditioning himself to switch out of fear-driven passivity by starting to focus on the dynamics and content of the conversation itself with an eye toward synthesizing multiple perspectives or framing disagreements or sticking points. This gave him a specific, easy to visualize and peer-like way to rejoin the conversation; it pulled him out of the defensive mindset that his job was simply to provide information if and when the conversation the other people in the room were having needed it.

But because he was, more generally speaking, simply trying to access a way of being that was already easy and natural to him in other situations, gathering sense memories and consciously connecting them to his behavioral tactics was also important. Mindfulness practices and many forms of meditation are extremely useful during this part of the change journey, largely because they are based on the exact kinds of intention and attention necessary for mapping one’s sense-making. In Ishan’s case, this meant internally hitting the “record” button when he was being the version of himself he wanted to be able to call out on demand. What did he feel like? What was he thinking? All the inputs he would need for his Plan B visualization were already available to him. He just needed to develop the ability to extract himself from those moments so that he could pay attention to them.

Reducing the amount of time it takes to go from noticing to producing the alternative

We have all experienced what the French call l’esprit d’escalier, or the wisdom of the staircase. It’s that moment when you know exactly what you should have said…a couple of minutes ago. When you are trying to change a habitual behavior you are bound to have this experience. The good news is that such experiences are in indication of progress, not failure.

Big changes – by which I mean ones that require both new behaviors as well as new mindsets to support that behavior – take time. And it is important to remember that you should measure success from how far you are from the starting line, not how close you are to the finish line. Recognizing a trigger situation and the alternative response you are trying to cultivate a day, or an hour, or a few minutes after the fact is an advance from not recognizing it at all. The question, then, is how to reduce the inevitable time lag.

Operations specialists will tell you that what gets measured moves. That truism underwrote Ishan’s decision to start formally tracking trigger moments: what he actually did, and the alternative response he would have preferred. Initially, he set aside 30 minutes twice a week to look back at the previous days and record these moments.  After a couple of weeks, the discipline of recording the data had helped attenuate his awareness of when we was acting reflexively. He could name instances when he had actually been able to recognize that he was withdrawing in the moment and had put his Plan B alternative behaviors into play.

Ishan’s progress on this front was accelerated by the fact that he was not inventing entirely new behaviors. Once he shifted into his more assertive, less protective operating mode, the rest came naturally. But, making that shift is by no means easy. Ishan still holds, and in some cases remains at the mercy of, those bedrock assumptions and stories that infuse his trigger moments with power. But, he’s learning to “breathe some air” into the space between stimulus and reaction and, by doing so, has increased his capacity for choice. In our world of helping leaders develop, that is a pretty big win.