Change Your Approach to Change

Why is change in the workplace and in our personal lives so difficult?  Do you find yourself wondering why you set goals and then do exactly the opposite behavior?

When someone has the skill, opportunity and motivation to change but continues to revert to their old behavior, how can we work more effectively with ourselves or with others?

Perhaps you’ve asked yourself these questions over and again? It’s not because you’re lazy, stubborn, or resistant to change. We each have a brilliant, but often hidden system of self-protection that undermines our goals and desires. This is a powerful system that may have been with us for our entire lives. You may know this as a belief system or competing commitments. This underlying system of beliefs is activated by emotions and thoughts – and those emotions and thoughts create our behavior. The challenge is that for many of us, this underlying system is invisible to us and influences our behavior outside of our awareness.

As children we absorb our beliefs from the world around us. We’re like sponges, taking these beliefs in as if they’re truths. We get them from our parents, our teachers, people we admire, emotionally charged events, repetitive experiences, and our culture and traditions. We add to this belief system through our positive and negative experiences and the way we make meaning of those experiences. These beliefs may warn us about how to protect ourselves in certain situations, and begin to form the basis for our behavior and the lenses through which we interpret our experiences.

Have you ever done something and then asked yourself “why did I do that?” Perhaps even in frustration or disappointment at your own actions. Our unconscious beliefs create our reality and inform our point of view which then determines the actions we take.

While our belief system is dynamic, rarely do we take the time to review it, let alone revise it.

When we want to change, we often apply the New Year’s resolution approach: We set a goal, we use willpower to move ourselves towards the goal. How effective is this approach in the long-run? In a 2007 study, 3000 people were tracked while attempting to achieve a range of resolutions including losing weight, visiting the gym, quitting smoking, and drinking less. At the start of the study, 52% of participants were confident of success. One year later, only 12% actually achieved their goal. Even in organizations, we often take the “New Year’s resolution” approach to setting goals for business and individual performance.

One reason our belief system cannot be overturned by simply learning new skills or powering through, is that we’d simply be adding new skills into a potentially limiting framework – like adding new apps to an outdated laptop that doesn’t have the computing power to run the apps.

According to Harvard’s Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, when someone attempts to change a well-functioning system, the emotional immune system springs into action to keep the person in their comfort zone and prevent feelings of stress, worry, anxiety, and other emotional discomfort. Instead of perceiving that we are out of our comfort zone in the face of change, we may feel that we are undisciplined or unmotivated or that we avoid or procrastinate.

Without understanding the root of what we’re avoiding, we are unlikely to address the real reason that change does not occur. The kind of change we need is adaptive. But all too often we apply technical solutions to adaptive problems. When we apply adaptive solutions to adaptive problems, we are finally able to create sustainable outcomes.

We need a new approach to CHANGE….

  1. Learning to see our problems or challenges as “opportunities” is something we hear quite a bit in the workplace. My question is “an opportunity to what end?” and how can we do the adaptive work that is necessary?
  2. I’m not a fan of the “fake it ’til you make it” mindset. From my perspective, this mindset exacerbates any existing misalignment between our inner and outer worlds and adds to a lack of authenticity others may experience in our interactions. We need adaptive change that works from the inside-out.
  3. In our American culture, being “on our own” is often prized. This however leads to a lack of mirroring, honest feedback, and support. To create sustainable, adaptive change, we need to learn how to lean into support, how to hear feedback from multiple perspectives and make meaning of it, and how to create a self-supporting change structure in our lives.
  4. Let’s go back to the computer metaphor for a moment. Have you ever tried to load new apps onto an old system? Most likely the new apps wouldn’t run because the operating system couldn’t handle them. For adaptive change to occur, we need to change all three elements of our own operating system – our head, heart, and gut (or intuition).
  5. Stepping outside of our comfort zone is a requirement for adaptive change to occur. We can do this gradually and thoughtfully by designing experiments that will test our assumptions, integrate the learnings, and then being choiceful about new pathways that open.
  6. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth about ourselves and it can also a powerful interference with our ability to manifest change. As we learn to work with and calm our fear-driven limbic system, we gain more objectivity and perspective.

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