The holidays are upon us. It’s the time of year where we overindulge – ourselves, our families, our children. We overeat, overshop, overspend, over-exert to meet the expectations we place on ourselves, imagining (and not always incorrectly) they are also the expectations of others. All while we continue to overwork, pushing hard to close out the business year while trying to balance the demands and expectations for family life during the holidays. It’s also the time of the year-end evaluation, where we slog through the self-evaluation, awkwardly touting our accomplishments and cringing as we listen to feedback that says we’re doing well but we could do better if only we’d address that one thing we still need to work on – that thing that comes up every year.
Then in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, we repent. We think of the bills, the pounds, the mess that’s left behind, the things we didn’t get done personally and professionally, and we promise ourselves that we will start the new year off right. We pledge to do better – eat better, exercise, sleep more, spend less, be more productive, get organized, prioritize, finally work on those things that keep coming up in our year-end evaluations. We’re so motivated to change, but by February, our motivation will be overcome by the tyranny of the urgent, our willpower overcome by exhaustion, our pattern repeating itself.
The issue isn’t motivation – it’s mindset. We approach growth and behavior change as though we just need to try harder or learn more. The problem is that we don’t have enough insight into WHY we’re behaving the way we do – why we can’t seem to get organized or why we don’t venture out of the office to build our networks or why we have so much trouble delegating or why we reach for yet another donut. We’re very aware we need to change and generally pretty aware of what we’re doing wrong or failing to do right, but that’s where our insight – and very often our analysis – ends. The real question is what we’re so afraid of that makes us behave the way we do.
Our entrenched, negative behaviors are actually self-defense mechanisms our brains create in an effort to keep us safe from some perceived threat. Trying to change that behavior through willpower means warring with our own minds – fighting against our most basic survival instincts. The research of Harvard professors Bob Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, who wrote the book, “Immunity to Change,” found that we are much better equipped to change our behaviors when we focus instead on changing the very mindset that created these self-defensive behaviors in the first place.
The other big mindset piece we have to get over is our desire for the quick fix. You can’t order up behavior change and expect it to arrive with the rapidity of a fast-food burger or even the lengthy 2-day wait for Amazon Prime. “I want to buckle down and make myself behave immediately – and then go back to being just the way I was in a few weeks,” said no one ever, but that’s exactly what we do.
The journey may take longer than the 21-day, white-knuckled attempt at habit change efforts some advise, but in the end, the journey is well worth it. Trying instead to form a new habit to combat a fear-fueled defense mechanism is problematic and frustrating and often results in increased self-criticism. And even if you’re successful at instituting a new habit despite your fears, the result is at worst unsustainable and at best a continued struggle to push through fear.
Here are some examples that show how we typically see and interpret our own behavior and the hidden fears that actually drive our behavior. I’ve used common examples, but keep in mind that even if one of these is your issue, the underlying fears may not resonate. Each person is different, so it’s important to do the self-discovery work to figure out what’s really going on for you.
Disorganized/lack of prioritization and/or follow-through:
- What we see in ourselves (and what others may see of us): missed deadlines; constant overwork; focus on tactical, easy to achieve items; strategic items overlooked or ignored
- What we typically tell ourselves (consciously): I should be able to do this; maybe I need a time management class; maybe I’m just lazy; it’s just not my personality to be organized
- What we typically believe and (UNconsciously) tell ourselves: I need to look busy and have daily achievements to be successful; if I focus on the hard stuff, nothing will ever get done, and I’ll be seen as a failure
- What might actually be going on: the higher priority items present a greater risk of failure, so it’s safer to focus on the easy things; or I’ve always been praised for being a doing, so I don’t know where to find my value if I delegate the little things and focus on the more strategic things that don’t yield a daily, obvious accomplishment; or my value is in being the disorganized genius, able to create miracles from chaos – and reigning that in means losing my specialness, and I may not be able to perform; or I can currently convince myself that my problem is lack of organization, but if I get organized and still fail to perform, I have no more excuses and I’m just a loser.
We typically focus on skill-building to try to solve this kind of issue, but no amount of skill will overcome the fear of failure that comes with putting ourselves out there or the fear of losing what makes us valuable.
Overly emotional responses to negative feedback or disagreements:
- What we see in ourselves (and what others may see of us): counterarguments, raised voice, aggressive responses, shutting down and withdrawing from conversation
- What we typically tell ourselves (consciously): I need to learn to control it; I have to learn to suck it up and keep my mouth shut; they don’t care as much as I do; I’m just a passionate person; it’s their fault for pushing my buttons
- What we typically believe and (UNconsciously) tell ourselves: if I don’t say something, things won’t be done right; if I yield, I’ll be seen as weak; if I don’t vigorously defend myself, others will believe I am wrong, I’ll lose their respect, and I’ll be viewed as a failure
- What might actually be going on: every time someone challenges my ideas, my value is threatened, and I must fight to preserve my reputation and perceived value to the team
In this second example, our self-development focus is typically on trying to improve our reaction. The longer-term, more powerful focus is shifting our mindset to a place where we no longer see these situations as threatening – thereby eliminating or at least minimizing our emotional reactions – and bringing about a more even-keeled, professional response.
Assertiveness, public speaking and leadership presence
- What we see in ourselves (and what others may see of us): speaking up only when we feel we have ALL the facts; hesitating, then hearing others praised for what we would have said had we spoken; rehearsing the perfect phrasing in our heads, only to have the conversation move on; following up with someone after the meeting, rather than publicly interjecting
- What we typically tell ourselves (consciously): others have better ideas; I don’t have all the facts; I should wait and address this one-on-one in case I’m wrong or embarrass the other person; I’ll slow the meeting down; I need to become a better, clearer speaker; I need to know more about this topic before I speak up
- What we typically believe and (UNconsciously) tell ourselves: I’m afraid I’ll look stupid; they’ll find out I don’t know as much as they think I do; if I speak up, and I’m wrong, I’ll lose all credibility; if I trip over my words, they’ll all laugh at me; if I disagree, I’ll look like I’m not a team player
- What might actually be going on: every time I open my mouth in a meeting, my reputation is on the line; or if I speak up, I might alienate those around me, and I’ll be ostracized and marginalized
In this example, our self-development focus is typically on trying to improve our speaking ability or knowledge of the subject, when what’s holding us back is fear – of losing credibility or of damaging professional relationships.
So, where to begin? You can start by asking yourself a few important questions:
- What do I most need to work on, in terms of my behavior?
- How am I currently behaving (i.e. what are the specific negative behaviors I’m currently engaging in)?
- What am I so worried about that makes me behave this way (or another way to think about it is, what am I worried might happen if I stop this negative behavior and start a more positive behavior)?
- And last, what is my worst-case scenario about what will happen if my fears come true?
- To combat our “right now” mindset, set smaller goals. Be clear on what right looks like, what steps you need to take to get there and what milestones you’d like to see along the way. These near-term milestones will help you see the progress you’re making before you’ve fully arrived.
Since these questions involve peeling back the layers in a new way, you may find the help of a coach or the structure of a workshop invaluable. Once you have more insight into what’s really going on, you can start paying close attention to your behavior. How often is this coming up for me? What am I telling myself in these moments? How are other people really acting around me (as opposed to how I imagine they will in my worst case scenario)?
Armed with even deeper clarity, you can start subtly, slowly shifting your behavior and see if those worst-case scenarios actually come true. So, I spoke up in a meeting and tripped over my words. Did anyone laugh? Did anyone but me even notice? Was there really anything to be afraid of? Of course not, and over time, you will shift your mindset to a place where you see opportunities instead of threats.
Carol Robert is a coach, instructor and organizational culture change agent. Her workshops and coaching have helped hundreds shift their behavior and find success in their work and more joy in their lives. For information on upcoming workshops, go to: http://www.opelion.com/upcoming-workshops.html