Most of us have someone in our lives, or others less familiar that we’d like to see change—their behavior, habits or attitudes.
In my 30+ years of training and coaching leaders, one of the most difficult things to accomplish is to help leaders make positive behavioral changes.
You may have found yourself in a scenario when you told someone “should” do something or “shouldn’t do something.”
But research shows that no matter much effort we exert in prodding, cajoling, threatening, or encouraging that person to change, we inevitably fail.
We want to change what American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910) referred to as their “habitual centre of personal energy.” That is unchangeable by anyone else. Every person has some broad interests, commitments, beliefs, or ways of being that aid us in navigating the world, according to James. These act as our own energy centres and significantly shape who we are. These centres may change throughout time, sometimes quite purposefully and other times due to laziness or negligence. It hurts even more when individuals we like, respect, and/or love suffer due to their own misaligned centres of energy.
The Habits of Personal Energy
Imagine a professional athlete vying for a championship. A few examples of things that take a back seat to that one goal are relationships, education, and social participation. Their regular personal energy centres are that goal and everything that needs be done to reach it. When someone or something stands in the way of that objective, it is frequently dropped. It grows closer to being attained the brighter that centre burns. If they succeed, they may go on to a more ambitious but related goal or they may accept the result as inevitable proof that they are exactly who they believe themselves to be.
If they don’t accomplish that goal on their own schedule, it might motivate them to increase their dedication and effort levels. Some people might not do as well. An existential crisis may occur when a person’s life has been so singularly focused but the objective is not achieved. When a person loses their centre, who are they? Athletes who sustain an injury in their prime must answer this issue for themselves and find a way to live it.
Consider another situation where a person begins to struggle with habit-forming substances or behaviours. When a someone is in the height of their addiction, alcohol, drugs, and particular behaviours take centre stage in their lives. Dreams have been crushed, relationships destroyed, careers destroyed, and opportunities destroyed. Nobody sets out to become an addict, but with time, the need or desire for particular substances and behaviours suffocates other elements of a person’s life. The remaining source of personal energy is a combination of self-criticism, hatred, and grief.
In the situations of the athlete and the addict, the conventional tactics of begging, cajoling, humiliating, and manipulating are ineffectual in shifting another person’s usual centre of personal energy.
Despite our best efforts, one person cannot change another. Our efforts might have the opposite effect of what we want. The person must be motivated by themselves.
Research on Behavior and Attitude Change
The study “Why behaviour change is difficult to sustain” by Mark E. Bouton, which was published in the journal Preventive Medicine, found that “methods used to create behaviour change” like “extinction,” “counterconditioning,” “punishment,” “encouraging alternative behaviour,” and “abstinence reinforcement” “tend to inhibit, rather than erase, the original behaviour.”
Donald Edmondson, PhD, head of the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, asserts that “behaviour change is difficult.” “However, one of the most crucial things people can do to live long, healthy lives is to maintain good practises. A recent study found that in the United States, human conduct is responsible for over 40% of the risk of fatalities that are premature and avoidable, such as heart disease, cancer, and stroke.”
Convincing People to Change Their Views Based on Lies They Believe
Research has also demonstrated that it can be very challenging to persuade people to think otherwise when they have been repeatedly told lies or untruths.
A study by Doris Lacassagne and colleagues, which was published in the journal Cognition, demonstrated that repetition makes extremely convincing claims or lies seem more true. The more often they are repeated, the more entrenched in their beliefs and resistant to change the individual gets. Their study and others like it demonstrate that repeating a false claim raises the perceived truth value of the assertion. The “truth-by-repetition (TBR)” effect is what is meant by this.
In Political Psychology, D.J. Flynn and colleagues reported their research. People establish opinions based more on their feelings, such as fear, scorn, and rage, than on the truth. People’s perceptions are typically unaffected by new information.
Charles S. Taber and Milton Lodge argue in an article in the American Journal of Political Science that when it comes to being confronted with contrary facts “Instead of re-evaluating what they’ve believed up until now, people tend to reject the incompatible evidence.”
“In an ideal world, reasonable people who discover fresh data that conflicts with their ideas would analyse the facts and adjust their opinions accordingly,” asserts Keith M. Bellizzi of the University of Connecticut. But in the actual world, things typically don’t work that way. A cognitive bias that might emerge when people confront data that conflicts with their views is partially to blame.
According to Bellizi, “When faced with data that imply their current ideas are incorrect, whether through the news, social media, or one-on-one talks, people feel intimidated. When the questioned ideas are consistent with your political and personal identities, this reaction is very potent. A challenge to one of your deeply held beliefs can feel like an attack on you.
According to Christopher A. Bail and colleagues’ research, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confronting facts that contradict your worldview may result in a “backfire effect,” which can ultimately strengthen your original position and beliefs, particularly with politically sensitive issues. This tendency has been discovered by researchers in a number of studies, including ones on about opinions toward climate change mitigation policies and attitudes toward childhood vaccinations.
How Our Brains Prevent Us From Changing Our Views and Attitudes
Our brains are “hard-wired” to defend us and have a negativity bias, according to research. But doing so might cause you to reinforce your incorrect views and attitudes. Dopamine and adrenaline are among the hormones that are released when you win a discussion or an argument. According to Ian H. Robertson in his book The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failure, they play a role in your brain’s enjoyment of sex, food, roller coasters, and winning a debate. You feel wonderful after that rush, possibly even invulnerable. Many individuals wish they could experience it more frequently.
Moreover, in situations of high stress or distrust, your body releases another hormone, cortisol. It can hijack your advanced thought processes, reason and logic – what psychologists call the executive functions of your brain. Your brain’s amygdala becomes more active, which controls your innate fight-or-flight reaction when you feel under threat.
In the context of communication, people tend to raise their voice, push back and stop listening when these chemicals are coursing through their bodies. Once you’re in that mindset, it’s hard to hear another viewpoint. The desire to be right combined with the brain’s protective mechanisms make it that much harder to change opinions and beliefs, even in the presence of new information.
Elements Required for Change
What are effective ways to change that center and to create a new one? William James is helpful in this regard though he is always clear the compelling force must be a willingness to act differently.
According to William James, people need to keep two things in mind in order to start cultivating that willingness to change. The first is a distinct awareness of how their current lifestyles are incomplete, hurtful, or even inappropriate for them. When they are unable to participate, athletes could feel alone in the world. Families, friends, fulfilling job, and social engagement—the typical types of things that orient and ground people—might not be present. Maybe the folks who were around them in the happy times have vanished in the wind. Most addicts become specialists at cataloguing all the ways they have ruined their lives, lost significant people and possessions, and—perhaps most importantly—lost themselves or their life’s goals. This acknowledgement of their losses is a requirement for change, but it is not sufficient.
A good ideal that people wish to aspire to or use as their points of reference in the world is the second factor, according to James, that people must have in mind in order to effect meaningful change. People who are caught in that circle of wrongness and incompleteness may find these aspirations or dreams of a decent existence absolutely unattainable or even impossible.
Athletes who have largely cut themselves off from everything but their sport are starting almost from scratch, which puts them at a disadvantage. Fundamental abilities that many people take for granted are lacking in them. They might need to look to others who have successfully made the adjustment. They could need to utilise those tales as a springboard or inspiration to start developing their own constructive ideal.
Positive memories from earlier in their own life may come to those who battle addiction and actively seek therapy. They can acknowledge that their current lives are imperfect yet use this as motivation to act in a different way going forward. They are willing to act differently because they can see the benefits. Others who lack historical values may need to look to those who have implemented the kinds of changes they desire. Many of us hitchhiked on other people’s tales early on in our recovery. We might begin to recognise ourselves in those narratives, which may inspire us to act differently.
While none of us have the power to alter another person’s normal source of personal energy, we can have control over the circumstances that will help or hinder transformation. When we behave in a way that traps someone in a cycle of wrongness and incompleteness, we make things more difficult for them. When we assist someone in identifying the values they wish to aspire to while always keeping in mind that our life could at times function as that ideal, we enable positive development.
The Power of Inquiry
According to a study that was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the secret to changing behaviour is asking the correct questions. Researchers discovered a phenomenon they called the “question-behavior effect” in which asking a question about potential behaviour accelerates a person’s readiness for change.
Ask someone, or ask yourself, “Are you planning to set aside money for retirement?” rather than telling them—or yourself—that investing in a retirement fund is necessary. When someone who isn’t saving any money is asked the question, it serves as a gentle reminder of the value of investing.
It is this discomfort that spurs people to make changes. The inquiry reminds someone of their options when they aren’t acting in a healthy way.
Researchers discovered that effectively inquiring results in persistent and significant change in a wide range of behaviours. Direct questioning made people less likely to cheat and more likely to exercise, donate, and recycle.
Asking a question that forces respondents to select a categorical yes or no response is the key. It’s interesting to note that researchers discovered the computer- or paper-and-pencil-based surveys were the best ways to implement the question-behavior impact.
Why It Works
There are numerous explanations for how the question-behavior effect operates. It might be related to cognitive dissonance, in my opinion.
When your ideal self and your actual self are at odds, you are experiencing cognitive dissonance. So even while you may want to lead a healthy lifestyle, it’s possible that your actions don’t reflect what a fit, healthy person would do. Therefore, it would be very uncomfortable to reply no when someone asks if you plan to exercise frequently.
You’re most likely to answer yes to allay your uneasiness. When it happens, your prediction that you’ll exercise may come true.
Answering a yes or no question does not allow for explanation, especially whether done on a computer or with a pen and paper. A yes or no question doesn’t provide for any space for explanation, even if you want to say something like, “I plan to start exercising next month,” or “I will go to the gym once my schedule allows.” You’ll have to decide whether to commit or not.
The next time you’re tempted to lecture someone about what they should do differently, try asking a yes or no question instead. You might find it’s the simplest, yet most effective way to inspire long-lasting behavior change.
Loyalty to Your Tribe or Group Can Prevent One from Changing
We regularly see folks who are in denial about climate change, COVID vaccines, or Republican claims about the 2020 election being “taken” from Donald Trump in mainstream and social media.
These people continue to hold their opinions in the face of all logical proof and evidence, despite the facts and evidence being presented.
According to research, people frequently base their beliefs on sentiment and group membership rather than on actual information. So how do you alter their viewpoints?
The majority of us have a strong desire to hang on to long-held views and beliefs that keep us grounded in reality. It can be quite difficult to change your position on contentious subjects when it both strengthens your group identification and pits you against imagined opponents.
According to risk perception specialist David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It, Really?, “We are social animals innately depending on our tribe for safety and security.” Any act of disloyalty literally makes you feel as though the tribe will expel you. When someone is already anxious, this effect is heightened.
In sum, defecting is as terrible as stepping off a window sill, and this anxiety is, in some ways, understandable. You’re more likely to feel excluded to some extent when you think and act differently from others in your immediate circle of friends.
The Backlash Effect
When doubts do surface, they may have the strange result of making people tighten their grip even more.
In a television interview, one Donald Trump said, “The attacks against Trump have taught me something about myself. I have supported him and said things I actually didn’t believe or support because I was put in a defensive position.”
The theory that an arguer’s apparent adamance may be inversely connected to their true conviction is supported by research. In a study from Northwestern University by David Gal and Derek D. Rucker that was published in Psychological Science, the researchers discovered that people worked harder to persuade others of their preferred viewpoint the less confident they felt about their opinions on contentious issues (such as whether animal testing is acceptable).
Is it pointless to engage in conversation with someone you disagree with if doubt frequently leads people to act without hesitation rather than to think? As you’ve probably found, standard discussions aren’t all that productive; in fact, if you start off trying to sway someone’s opinion, you can end up with the opposite impact. The opposite is also true: The less you try to convince someone to share your point of view, the more freedom they’ll have to express their opinions openly, and perhaps even later change their minds.
Additionally, when there is a common foundation of friendship and respect, productive interchange is more likely. Author and artist Boting Zhang of Seattle is documenting the development of friendships between Trump and Clinton supporters over the course of a year in a project titled Between Americans. Hot-button themes occasionally come up, but the level of intimacy between the participants usually dictates the path of the talk. Participants converse with one another about more private matters.
When discussions become contentious, Zhang asserts that it is important to get to know the other person personally. She counsels approaching discussions of sensitive subjects with the presumption that you won’t alter the other person’s opinions, but she acknowledges that this may be easier said than done. “That delicate balance between genuinely caring and trying to understand someone rather than try to alter their mind is a knife-edge balance!”
Changing Your Own Behavior
A difficult task for most of us is altering behaviour. Changing behaviour is one of the most difficult things any of us will ever attempt to do, regardless of whether the change involves a change in nutrition, exercise, routines, dependencies, or anything else. There is a lot of knowledge regarding why persistent transformation is so challenging in this field of study. Eight of the main causes are listed below:
- Negative feelings motivate us. Although it makes sense to believe that deeply felt negative emotions like regret, shame, fear, and guilt should be able to spur long-lasting behaviour change, the reverse is really true. Negative emotions may cause us to reflect on everything we’re not doing or feel as though we’re doing something wrong, but they are terrible catalysts for lasting change. According to a survey of 129 behaviour change research, fear and regret were consistently the least successful change agents. Despite how cliché it may sound, positive thinking is the only way to create lasting change. You must have good, uplifting motivations for taking on the challenge.
- We fall into traps when we think erroneously. When trying to change a behaviour, feeling overwhelmed often leads to an all-or-nothing mentality that says, “I’m going to charge in and change, and if I fail, that means I just can’t do it.” All-or-nothing thinking is a significant cognitive bias and distortion, as you are likely aware. It forces us into impossible circumstances since the chances of maintaining even the most remarkable burst of momentum to alter behaviour are slim. (Consider how quickly gym memberships grow in January before waning by March.)
- We attempt to eat the elephant whole. No of the behaviour, changing behaviour is a difficult task that can rarely be completed entirely at once. But we must begin somewhere, with specific, quantifiable initiatives. Small and definite must take the place of big and hazy. I’m going to start walking tonight after work for 30 minutes down the street, not “I’m going to start exercising.” Every particular action is a forkful of changing behaviour, and a collection of those acts taken repeatedly over time produces cumulative change. We need particular habits and goals to support those habits to go along with those cumulative acts because we need performance benchmarks to compare ourselves to, according to behaviour change studies. But even those should be precise and realistic.
- The toolbox is ignored. You need the appropriate tools if you want to fix your car. Why is it any different to alter something about ourselves? Whatever you want to call them—tools, devices, whatever—the fact is that we need a few tried-and-true go-tos to promote long-lasting transformation. Finding out about healthy eating habits and developing a workable plan to implement them are the absolute minimum requirements for changing our diet. Perhaps keeping a menu cheat sheet in your phone’s notepad or setting daily reminders in your Outlook calendar are parts of the strategy. While some of these tools will be unique to a person, others are commonly used and accessible to anybody who requires them.
- We make too many changes. It’s admirable if you can make a long-term commitment to change one behaviour and actually make it stick. However, attempting to adopt several behaviours at once is a sure-fire way to drive them all off course. The tools we use to effect change—attention, self-control, motivation, etc.—are finite. Too many attempts to change lead to unreasonably high demands on available resources and the early failure of our initiatives. We neglect the fact that the other parts of our lives also require those resources and continue to spin, so even just one more commitment to changing your behaviour is significant.
- We undervalue the procedure. Change is never just one thing; it’s a number of interconnected things, and lasting change doesn’t occur without a process that takes all the relevant factors into account. The main lesson is that long-term behaviour change requires steps. You can consult a variety of models for behaviour change, and investing some time in that is worthwhile. It’s simple to deceive ourselves into thinking that behaviour change ought to be much easier than it actually is. To even slightly change the situation is a challenging, process-focused challenge.
- We fail to remember that failure is often inevitable. If you try to change and fail, you’ve demonstrated one of the most enduring realities about behaviour change: Failing at least once—and possibly more than once—is a necessary part of the process. Failure teaches you more about what demands your focus and energy in the following round (and the next). All of the tried-and-true change process models take failure into account and encourage those who want to change to view failure as a phase rather than the process’s conclusion or an excuse to give up.
- We don’t commit to something and hold ourselves responsible. The finest behaviour change research tells us, and this is maybe most essential, that if we don’t commit to doing whatever it is that we want to do, it won’t get done. That requires you to start by committing to yourself. Additionally, having a responsible party can help you stick to your resolutions and track your development. Consider your closest friend, a family member, or a co-worker.
Coaching Someone to Make Changes
While we are excellent goal-setters, we are not nearly as skilled at achieving our objectives. Why? Numerous academic resources, including those in consulting psychology, management, and social psychology, have been devoted to addressing that subject. Even those efforts must be dwarfed by the total amount of time that every person who has ever set a goal but failed to attain it has spent reflecting on the issue.
Elliot T. Berkman offers a conceptual framework in a study published in the Consulting Psychology Journal to clarify why behaviour change might be so challenging. The framework is based on findings from neuroscience as well as social, cognitive, and clinical psychology theory and research.
The “will” in this context refers to the emotional and motivational components of behaviour change. The “why” of changing behaviour is the will. Why do you think the behaviour is important? Why are you trying to alter? Why now?
The “method” on the other hand refers to the mental and educational components of behaviour modification. The “how” of changing behaviour is in the way. How will a change in behaviour take place? What abilities and talents are needed? What exactly is the plan?
For behaviour change to be successful, both the will and the way must change. A goal requires both the will and the means. However, research in the field of neuroscience has shown that the brain systems engaged in those two aspects of behaviour modification are very dissimilar from one another. The solutions that a coach can use to assist a client who is having trouble changing their behaviour would also be significantly different if the issue involved the will or the way.
Finding the nature of the issue is the coach’s first step. Is there a knowledge, skill, or capacity gap preventing change? Tools can then be found to remedy those “way” problems. Alternately, it’s possible that the customer is aware of what to do and how to do it but is unable to. A motivational programme is therefore required. The choices are also not exclusive of one another: Sometimes finding motivation alone is not enough; skill development is also necessary. However, even in that situation, it can be helpful to recognise the differences between the two and deal with them independently.
Executive function, the name neuroscientists use to define the “method,” is necessary for learning new knowledge, skills, and capacities. Executive function takes conscious attention, and we can only give it to one object at a time in its entirety. When executive function is used to accomplish one goal, other goals are put on the back burner. Deploying the road has an opportunity cost from an economic perspective. The sensation of effort reflects that expense. So, altering behaviour might be challenging because it requires focusing all of your limited mental energy on one objective while disregarding others.
What about situations where the information and abilities are present but the will is not? Why is it sometimes so difficult to get yourself to accomplish something you are capable of doing? In Berkman’s article for the Consulting Psychology Journal, he discusses the relationship between motivation and reward value as well as how reward value is significantly influenced by prior experience. This biological reality has the critical implication that new behaviours are rarely as motivating as previously rewarded ones. Why try that new activity, for instance, when you know that Netflix will be pleasurable regardless of whether it feels good or not?
People do, in fact, adopt new behaviours, and they do so for a variety of reasons. It’s not that learning new behaviours can’t be rewarding; they just tend to be the underdog when contrasted against well-learned alternatives. Helping clients find enjoyable ways to engage with new responsibilities is the key for coaches and consultants.
One such strategy, according to Berkman, is to link the new behaviour with fundamental ideas and values that are essential to a client’s identity in order to maximise reward with personal sources of value. By utilising social norms and interpersonal connections to raise the value of a goal, P. Wesley Schultz and colleagues have demonstrated in Psychological Science that there is a second way to increase reward with social value. Both of these situations have an advantage over material things like money since they have the potential to last far longer and be more applicable to everyone. We all have fundamental beliefs and care a great deal about our social connections, yet money runs out and doesn’t have the same meaning for everyone.
Honesty, integrity, and thoroughness are examples of strong business-based and leadership attributes that are challenging to quantify. The coach’s job is to bring these qualities out in leaders so they can improve their behaviour.
The goal of behaviorally focused coaches is to help their clients improve their behaviour. The powerful method of cognitive behavioural coaching uses theories and research from the field of psychology. It is a set of tactics, exercises, procedures, and activities that coaches employ to assist clients recognise and combat self-defeating attitudes, feelings, and behaviours.
It was derived and evolved from two distinct procedures. The first was Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which was described in its modern form by professor and psychiatrist Aaron Temkin Beck. Second, Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT), which is more limited in scope.
The CBT philosophy is based on the idea that our thoughts have an impact on how we feel about things. We have the power to alter our perceptions of situations, and as a result, our attitudes and emotions about them. We can change our behaviour by altering the feelings and emotions we have about it.
Here are a few illustrations of behavioural coaching techniques:
- Assist the client in realizing that every action has implications for both the client and others, whether they are favourable or unfavourable.
- Pay attention to actions taken rather than personality traits.
- Consider the effects of your actions on others and on yourself.
- Focus your inquiries on desirable actions.
- Look at the language (self-talk) used to explain one’s actual and desired conduct.
- Check to see if the client’s present values and desired actions are in line.
- Consider any limiting self-beliefs that might inhibit behaviour change.
- Obtain the client’s design and action plan, including justification and responsibility, for desired behaviours.
My Personal Observations Based on Coaching Hundreds of Leaders over 30+ Years
I’ve worked with, trained and coached leaders in all kinds of organizations all my life, and I found that one thing that can prevent or positively facilitate change in their behavior is self-awareness. The leaders who had an elevated self-awareness which involved seeing themselves accurately as well as being open to feedback from others, had a greater capacity for changing their behavior for the better. In contrast, those leaders who lacked self-awareness, or had significant blind spots and were not open to feedback from others, resisted change. As a coach, one of the most effective strategies I employed was to assist the leaders in developing their accurate self-awareness and acting upon that kn