Extending the last post, we’ve now got more, incontrovertible scientific evidence about what is so hard about changing executive and organizational behavior and why. It boils down to how hard it is to change habits, not just of individuals, but of groups that form organizations. Wow, earth shattering?? It is actually.
To get the idea across, it helps to get people thinking about other changes they want to make in their lives and what those take. For instance, one might start out attempting to lose weight and before long you realize it is more about overall health. It doesn’t take much reading to discover the experts say diets mostly don’t work, that you need an overall lifestyle change – but what’s that?
In practice it means working on one thing at a time, but recognizing it will take more changes to support the one you’re trying to achieve. If it’s losing weight you soon discover it is generally thought the best route is through a combination of moderate dieting and exercise. Both these are sets of habits that take consistent practice to develop. Neither the diet nor the exercise pattern you initially try are likely to be the ones you finally settle on. There are ‘sub-habits’ that have to be developed and other old, established ones you have to ignore (change isn’t really the right word for habits – you never really lose an old habit, just install one that is more frequently used and becomes more comfortable in time).
Habit is comfortable and automatic, so you have to pay attention to notice what your existing habits are and work consistently (tolerating some feeling of discomfort) to practice new ones instead. Most of us don’t last long at this. We try exercising after those New Year’s resolutions or when we get back to work after the summer. and then peter out when work pressure takes over. We skip one visit to the gym, then another, another and finally we hardly go at all. We know how this works.
Instead we have to concentrate on when and why we’re not following through with a view to finding a better time of day, day of the week or whatever until simply by trying variations we start to find the ones that feel most comfortable. and at the same time, by forcing ourselves to try variations we are actually repeating the core element – in this case exercise. which starts to feel not only comfortable, but like something we miss if we don’t do it – it becomes self-reinforcing to a degree, but yes, we still have to make the effort and the time.
If a particular change is truly a priority, it’s because we truly believe it will be better for us in the long run. Building such true belief may take some practice and reinforcement, too, plus reading on the subject, talking with others and willingness to take advice or pay attention to the obvious. We have great skills at rationalizing why our current habits are “close enough” – anything to avoid the discomfort of practicing change.
We can hear the statistics (on smoking, say, or the benefits of a positive employment environment) on our future and still not act, or at least not act consistently enough to make change stick. Senior executives who refuse to work on improving the environment for engagement and individual innovation are no different from the many who prefer to huddle in the cold despite the health risks of continued smoking. I recall one CEO who liked to brag he could outrun same-aged non-smokers on treadmill tests despite his heavy smoking habit. So what? It’s still hard to argue his health wasn’t affected, but at least that’s a personal choice affecting only himself (and eventually his family). Maybe I was lucky early on that my two-pack a day habit didn’t give me a choice if I wanted to keep breathing. Some people desperately want to believe they will never come up against the wall even though they know it’s there in theory. and maybe some won’t change despite the risky gamble.
For CEOs who argue they don’t have to stop yelling at subordinates and firing people for the slightest mistake, the gamble and the consequences affect far more than the individuals caught personally in these episodes. Shareholders, suppliers, customers and all other stakeholders are being shortchanged. Sure a senior executive can get away with bad behavior for a time, but overall results of disengaged staff and high turnover of key people will eventually tell the tale. It’s just proven business fact. Those who don’t acknowledge this can keep kidding themselves, but the rest of the world is figuring out the truth. Increasingly Boards are pushing such changes in habits or ‘culture’ or finding CEOs who will do this for them.