Changing behaviour starts with a look in the mirror

Radical change, or change to appease someone else, rarely sticks

Rebecca SchalmJerry started smoking when he was in Grade 5. Over the course of his life he has tried many times – once when his uncle died from lung cancer – to give it up.

Then, one morning, at the age of 37, Jerry woke up feeling like an old man. He stubbed out his cigarette, threw the pack in the trash, and never smoked again.

When you ask Jerry, now 55, if it was hard, he tells you he never had the urge to smoke again. Personally, I think he’s forgotten how tough the first few months were.

I am constantly asked if people can ever really change. I picture Jerry and my answer is, absolutely. Jerry didn’t stop smoking by following all the rules about how to change behaviour. There was no goal-setting, no action planning, no progress monitoring. He stopped smoking because he experienced a seismic shift in understanding of who he was, and who he wanted to be.

At some point in your life, someone has probably told you to take a good, hard look at yourself. There is an important truth behind that statement – change starts by looking inward. This is actually much more difficult than the behaviour change part, and it isn’t a practice that is well-developed or promoted in Western culture.

The closest we get to a safe place that encourages self-reflection, awareness and self-understanding is therapy. In the business world, it is known as coaching. Coaching, however, often focuses on the goal-setting and behaviour modification part and tends to skip the going deep part.

Among the many tools to help us gain insight into ourselves, many involve filling out a long series of repetitive questions about what we think, like or do. The outputs are inventories of thinking style, motivation, values, leadership and personality.

It turns out they provide a remarkably accurate picture into who we are and can be a great stimulus to self-understanding. But they do not replace the process of coming face-to-face with yourself, knowing yourself intimately, and either accepting yourself or deciding to make change.

Behaviour change starts with a decision on the part of your “self” – that piece of you that remains separate and distinct from your automatic thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Jerry’s self was tired of sharing space with an entity controlled by cigarette. One day, it snapped.

If you are very lucky, the self snaps. We all know people who have undergone remarkable life transformations as a result of a dramatic shift in their being. These stories stand out because they rarely reflect our own personal experience with change – a long slog riddled with setbacks.

For most of us, waking up to the desire and ability to change comes more slowly. And that is a good thing, because sudden decisions to make radical change rarely stick. And changes that we undertake to appease someone else – our boss, partner, kids, coach – never stick either. Unless the self decides it wants to be involved, early success is usually followed by disappointment.

Before you kick into action-hero mode, invest time contemplating and reflecting. If you are on a change journey with the help of personality reports or 360 reviews, don’t do anything until you can read through each word on the page without cringing. Immerse yourself in it. You are learning about yourself, either how you see yourself or how others see you. It may not be truth, but it is real.

Until you can sit comfortably looking at yourself in the mirror, holding your own gaze, you can’t do anything that will lead to lasting change.

The best leadership development plan I have seen had one action item: “I am going to go away and think about this, maybe while I am on vacation so I’m not so distracted. And after that, I will decide what, if anything, I am going to do about it. I’ll keep you posted.”

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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