How to Initiate Positive Behavior Change

There is no harder task for adults than changing our behavior. We are geniuses at avoiding change. So we continually fail at improving.

The good news is that the environment is not conducting a cloak-and-dagger operation. It’s providing constant feedback. We’re often too distracted to hear what the environment is telling us. But in those moments when we’re paying attention, the covert triggers that shape our behavior become apparent.

The not-so-good news is that it’s hard to stay alert as we move from one environment to another. Our circumstances change, and we can’t always summon the ability or motivation to manage each situation.

Basic tools such as anticipating, avoiding and adjusting to risky environments are a good place to start, but they are temporary solutions. To understand a problem, you not only have to admit there is a problem; you also have to appreciate the following option

1. Creating

Creating is the poster child of behavioral change. When we imagine ourselves behaving better, we think of it as a process of self-invention. The challenge is to do it by choice, not as a bystander.

Creating is not an option that comes automatically. If we’re satisfied with our life, we yield to inertia. If we’re dissatisfied, we may go to the other extreme.

We always have a chance to create better behavior in ourselves. All we need is the impulse to imagine a different us.

2. Preserving

Preserving sounds mundane, but it’s a real choice. It requires soul searching and discipline to refrain from abandoning it for something new and shiny and not necessarily better.

Successful people by definition are doing a lot of things correctly, so they have a lot to preserve. But they also have a baseline urge that equates steady advancement with constant improvement. When they face the choice of being good or getting even better, they opt for the latter — and risk losing some desirable qualities.

We rarely ask ourselves, “What in my life is worth keeping?” After all, preserving a valuable behavior means one less behavior we have to change.

3. Eliminating

Eliminating is our most liberating action — but we make it reluctantly. Like cleaning the attic, we never know if we’ll regret jettisoning a part of us. Maybe we’ll need it in the future.

The most significant transformational moment in my career was an act of elimination. I was in my late 30s and doing well flying around the country giving the same talk about organizational behavior. I was on a lucrative treadmill of preserving, but I needed my mentor Paul Hersey to point out the downside.

“You’re too good at what you’re doing,” Hersey told me. “You’re making too much money selling your day rate to companies.”

The real test is sacrificing something we enjoy doing that’s not harming our career, that we believe may even be working for us. Here, we may ask ourselves, “What should I eliminate?” And come up with nothing.

 4. Accepting

CEOs tend to see three of these four elements with great clarity when it applies to an organization. Creating is innovating, taking risks on new ventures, creating new profit centers within the company. Preserving is not losing sight of your core business. Eliminating is shutting down or selling off the businesses that no longer fit.

Accepting is the rare bird in this aviary of change. Businesspeople can’t help equating “acceptance” with “acquiescence.” In business, we have an abundance of metrics to help achieve acceptance of a dire situation or the need for change. But our natural impulse is to think wishfully rather than realistically.

That impulse is more egregious in interpersonal relationships. Instead of metrics, we rely on impressions. We take in what we want to hear, not what we need to hear.

Accepting is most valuable when we’re powerless to make a difference. Yet our ineffectuality is the condition we are most loath to accept. It triggers our finest moments of counterproductive behavior.

Good things happen when we ask ourselves what we need to create, preserve, eliminate and accept. Discovering what really matters is a gift, not a burden. Accept it and see.


AUTHOR:  Marshall Goldsmith is an authority in helping leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. He is the author of 32 books, including “Managers as Mentors,” with co-author Chip Bell.



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