The subjectivity of change bias and the three ingredients for sustainable change.
In my line of work, I’m often asked whether people can TRULY change. The short answer is: yes. The longer answer is: yes and it takes three ingredients.
Before we look at these key ingredients, it’s important you watch out for your own bias. Essentially, sad but true, when it comes down to it, your assessment of whether someone CAN change is frequently driven by their likability. Simply put, a well-liked leader’s ability to change will be met with greater support and optimism than the quintessential “jerk.” This bias can predetermine the outcome of a leader development effort, and not for the best.
So I offer this suggestion: whether you’re a skeptic or a cheerleader of someone’s ability to change, you might want to keep an open mind and consider instead more compelling and reliable ingredients for sustainable leader development, below. Over the years, I’ve seen the great, the mediocre, and the ugly in terms of people making professional (and personal) change. The best of what I’ve seen has three ingredients in common: capability, fire, and timing.
Some self-awareness and smarts is necessary for a person to change in a sustainable way. While past behavior and reactions to feedback can be informative, you won't TRULY know whether they are capable of change until they are given support and a fair chance to try, and all three ingredients are present. Remember that likability can come into play here, so it’s important to take that bias out, and care about your person enough to invest in them.
Whether "willingness," or all-out "motivation," we need to have SOME kind of fire in the belly in order to make a sustainable change, and the bigger the goal, the more fire is necessary. Ignition usually comes from an event, conversation, and/or self-realization more powerful than the patterns/habits that need changing. It can be a hugely clarifying or candid talk with a leader, coach, colleague, or mentor, embarrassing blind spot feedback, or the realization of how our actions are getting in our own way, or affecting others. That can literally ignite the flames of change, which, along with capability and timing, can set us on a new and sustainable course.
Maybe someone is arrogant or has delegation problems or isn’t hitting their numbers. In addition, perhaps they are under some significant personal stress. You want to help them change their approach but with all that stress, it's just NOT the right moment for THEM. In fact, we can hear (or experience) something multiple times and not respond to it, or be inspired by it. Yet the second, tenth or 20th time, it clicks, and we awaken to a “new” approach, professional change, developmental change, etc.
Our ears / our brain has to be “ripe” for it to be able to click. The more fire we have (above) the better, but there are definitely situations where we hear the RIGHT thing at the WRONG time, and it’s simply not actionable. Again, experience and honesty with others and ourselves is the best medicine. In addition, timing must be right for surrounding circumstances to shift to avoid reinforcing habits / patterns that need to change. Unwanted behavior has a way of developing support mechanisms to reinforce itself, and those must also be addressed.
These are not the ONLY ingredients necessary for sustainable change, but they are the most important ones. Without them, we have a great knack for keeping our behavior repetitively static in the face of a dynamic world.
A key needs to fit into our locked habits and patterns. It's made not of metal, but of capability, fire, and timing. The tumblers click, and then -- watch out. Your person can become something no one, including them, thought they could. This is as true of yourself as it is for your people. Check your instincts, and you’ll see what I’m saying is right on.
The Recovering Leader