Rethinking how to overcome stubborn behavioural change

September 14, 2018

If we’re honest, we all have a significant behaviour that we’ve struggled and failed to change. And the reason for our failure eludes us. Our desire to change is real, because our current behaviour is causing us some pain. We’ve put genuine effort into trying to change. We might even have succeeded for a while, before lapsing back. And yet, there our behaviour remains – a beacon of failure and shame.

In just the past month, I’ve worked with three clients who were all struggling with their inability to delegate. And this inability – or refusal, perhaps – was seriously getting in their way, and causing tension with their managers.

“If we’re honest, we all have a significant behaviour that we’ve struggled and failed to change. And the reason for our failure eludes us.”

One of the most common ways of thinking about this kind of behavioural challenge is to see it as an issue either of willpower or of training. We tell ourselves that if only we had more willpower, if only we just tried harder, we’d finally crack it. Either that, or we attend a day’s training course, in the hope that will ‘fix’ us.

Both approaches turn out to be absolutely wrong and ineffective.

They are wrong because they make the assumption that it’s possible to address behaviours directly, simply by doing something differently, without considering the context of those behaviours and the mindset that sustains them.

”If we hope to achieve lasting behavioural change, we need to think differently about behavioural purpose and mindset, and not just focus on the behaviour itself.”

Instead of seeing our troublesome behaviours as aberrant, or wrong, or signs of personal weakness, it’s helpful to ask ourselves what positive purpose our behaviours might be serving. In what ways are our behaviours working for us, rather than against us?

We behave in the ways we believe will best protect ourselves. Behaviours that are resistant to change are often holding deep-seated, unacknowledged fears at bay.

Because we all come to our behaviours in different ways, there’s no simple diagnostic template for knowing what purpose any specific behaviour serves. Identical behaviours serve different people in different ways. This is another reason why one-size-fits-all training often fails to make a significant difference to strongly entrenched behaviours.

The three clients working with me on their unwillingness to delegate all shared the same behavioural challenge. However, their underlying fears were each different.

One had an overwhelming fear of being let down by other people, and disappointed in them.
The second feared losing control.
The third feared losing the prestige of doing the work themselves.

None of them are mad, bad or neurotic. They’re healthy, intelligent human beings sheltering from their fears as best they can, in a very natural way.

One way to begin to understand our stuck behaviours is to ask ourselves, ‘If I were to imagine behaving in the opposite way to the way in which I behave now, what’s the worst fear that comes into my mind?’

None of my clients was able to make any progress until they’d understood the protective purpose of their behaviour and identified how to address their self-protective needs in better ways. It is knowing that you can still protect yourself without needing your old behaviour that finally permits change to happen.

A related way of loosening stubborn behaviours is to consider the mindset that is making them seem necessary.

In this context, our mindsets comprise the unexamined beliefs and assumptions we hold about the world, and about ourselves. Until we identify and question them, we usually hold these beliefs and assumptions in very absolute ways. They are our ‘always trues’.

Our behaviours are driven by our assumptions. And the less aware we are of our assumptions, the stronger their grip on us. If I have an assumption that I unconsciously believe always to be true, then that assumption will condition my behaviour all of the time. If I unconsciously assume that delegating puts me at risk, then it’s no surprise that my refusal to delegate will be very persistent!

One way of beginning to get a handle on our assumptions is to ask ourselves, ‘What must I assume to be true in order to make my behaviour seem so necessary to me?’

It can be very helpful to answer that question in the form of a sentence that follows this pattern:
‘If (I do this) … then (the consequence will be) … and (the worst thing about that is) …’

The sentences of the three clients who were struggling with delegation looked like this:

If I delegate to people, then they’ll let me down, and I’ll find my disappointment in them unbearable.
If I delegate to people, then I’ll lose control, and everything will fall apart.
If I delegate to people, then I’ll lose my ability to look good, and my career will stall.

If we use this tool effectively, the ‘then’ part of the sentence identifies the assumption we’re making. This is the assumption that we know for sure what will happen as a consequence of our actions. (If I delegate, then this will certainly be the result.)

The ‘and’ part of the sentence identifies what it is we most fear. It names our most dreaded consequence – the thing we feel the need to protect ourselves from at all costs.

Being able to name and identify our previously unexamined beliefs and assumptions about our behavioural challenge is the first step towards being able to gain more distance from it. From this follows the opportunity to more accurately reshape our assumptions and thereby finally permit ourselves to act differently.

In the next post, we’ll look at two different self-observation techniques that follow from the initial steps described in this post. These self-observation exercises allow us to learn more about the purpose and mindset holding our behaviours in place. The insights generated from these observations are what then enable lasting, sustainable change to occur.

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