The New Year is all about resolutions: changes we will bring about, habits we will implement, and promises we will make, to ourselves and others, about how things will be different. But good intentions are not enough. An estimated two-thirds of dieters gain back the weight they lost, new gym memberships are gathering dust by February, and 70% of organizational change initiatives are not successful. If so many attempts at change fail, what can we do instead to enable change?
One of my favorite frameworks to address change was developed by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, professors with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and described in the Harvard Business Review article, The Real Reason People Won’t Change. This approach is based on the idea of “competing commitments.” This means that while we may state that we are committed to a certain outcome, we instead do things that are contrary to that outcome. I say that I want to go to the gym every day, but instead I sit on the couch and watch TV. I say that I will delegate more of my tasking to free up my time for strategic thinking, but instead I keep my hands in every project under me. Does any of this sound familiar?
Kegan and Lahey are organizational psychologists who say that for an individual, a team, or an organization, efforts to change are fruitless unless we are willing to examine the thinking that locks us into existing behaviors. A coaching client said in our first meeting that her goal was to carve out more time for her professional development. Yet for the first three months we worked together, her immediate tasking always took priority over her professional development. Around this time, she said, “My colleague prioritizes her professional development, and I’m annoyed that she is not as committed as the rest of us are to our work.” It took some further conversation for her to realize that she would not be successful unless she could find a way to reconcile her intention with her beliefs.
So what is the way forward? At the heart of any set of competing commitments are certain assumptions. We may have been holding them for so long that we think of them as fixed and immovable. But assumptions can be examined to see if they are valid or not. And in doing so we start to change our thinking and, in turn, our behaviors.
A different client of mine wanted to improve his confidence in speaking to senior leadership. His colleagues reported that in other settings, he would bring a few slides but referred to them only occasionally, instead maintaining open, engaging conversation with the audience. His extensive expertise and passion for the work would shine through. With senior leadership, it was almost the opposite – he stuck to a slide deck and lots of structure. His expertise and passion were not at all apparent.
He could recognize that in being too scripted, he also was not allowing senior leadership to see his best self. But he also said, “I’m afraid that if I move away from my script, I will not have an answer at hand, and I’ll look incapable.” When he stated this out loud, it allowed him to examine the reality of it, to test his assumptions. He recognized that he was always incredibly prepared. If he was asked a question he couldn’t answer, the audience understood that he would provide the answer later, and it was not a reflection of his intellect, knowledge, or capability. While he still had some trepidation the first time he gave an unstructured presentation to senior leadership, unpacking and challenging his assumption allowed him to move past his fears.
The New Year brings optimism, hope, and excitement for new initiatives. Improve the odds of success for you and your team by identifying competing commitments and uncovering and challenging the assumptions that can keep you stuck.