Leadership development is about behavior shifts. Even with the desire to adopt new behaviors, and with good intentions to change, we may instead engage in self-defeating actions. The person who says they want better work-life balance but finds that they cannot say “no.” The person who says that their own professional development is a top priority but has difficulty scheduling time for it. They are sincere in wanting to effect a change but are struggling to put it into practice.
Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey are professors with the Harvard Graduate School of Education and organizational psychologists. They say that for an individual, a team, or an organization to change, we first need to look at the thinking underneath the current behaviors. The centerpiece of this approach is the concept of “competing commitments.” I say I want to bring about a certain outcome, but then I do things that run contrary to that goal. If we are unaware of our competing commitments, they will sabotage our earnest efforts to change. A summary of their steps to uncover competing commitments is:
- Describe the desired end state (“better work-life balance”)
- Identify the behavior that undermines this goal (“I cannot say ‘no’“)
- Ask yourself, what is the assumption that drives this behavior? (“If I say ‘no,’ I won’t be seen as a team player. My performance evaluation will suffer.”)
This process can be uncomfortable because it likely touches on fears and insecurities. The above example comes from my work with a client. It took several conversations for us to uncover his assumption, and I was grateful that he felt comfortable enough to share it with me.
I asked him, “What actually happens when you say ‘no’?” He paused for a moment, and said, “I don’t know. I never say ‘no’.” Which leads us to the next part of Kegan and Lahey’s process: test the assumption. They outline these steps to do so:
Notice your current behavior. I give my clients a worksheet to record the behavior they are trying to shift, what they did, what the context was, what they were thinking, and what they were feeling. After two weeks, you will have good insight into your behavior and what drives it.
Look for contrary evidence. In my client’s case, he had a 360 report with nearly universal feedback from reviewers that he needed to set boundaries and say “no.” And even with this perspective literally staring him in the face, this alone was not enough to shift his behavior.
Explore the history. Our beliefs may have started years before and may have roots in a personal experience or a professional one. Examining where your beliefs come from allows you to ask yourself, does this belief still make sense or serve me in the present?
Test the assumption and evaluate the results. My client practiced saying “no” in low-risk situations first with supportive colleagues and built his confidence to eventually say “no” more often. Some people did not like his new-found willingness to say “no.” But the vast majority of his interactions showed him that people understood when he had to say “no,” and it did not reflect poorly on him.
We all have assumptions that drive our behaviors. When we are not aware of what they are, we may find it difficult to shift our behavior. But by bringing our assumptions into our awareness and being willing to challenge them, we can shift our thinking and enable our goal of behavior change.