Changing Limiting Behaviors
Welcome to our ongoing series of FAQ blogs about the core principles of LaL’s methodology. In this FAQ, CEO Shayne Hughes discusses what prevents us from changing behaviors that don’t serve our goals.
Q. Most people know the pain of trying to change a behavior like being argumentative or procrastinating. Why is it so difficult to do?
The first problem lies in recognizing we even have an unhelpful behavior. We don’t tend to notice our own leadership and communication styles. And there’s such rampant conflict avoidance in the workplace, people rarely express their feedback to one another.
The second obstacle is when you do notice something needs to be changed, it’s not enough to tell yourself, oh, I should do something different. People need to uncover why they began the behavior in the first place. It’s not an accident that they’re repeating it.
Q. Can you give an example?
A. I used to be a pathological procrastinator. I’d have a report or a project to deliver and I would see the deadline looming off in the distance. I’d tell myself, start early, get going now. The days would go by and I would somehow find a way to avoid it until the very last minute.
I wasn’t getting the results that I wanted and I was very frustrated and judgmental of my inability to start early. It’s a great example of how knowing what to do doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll do it.
The explanations I gave myself only made things worse. I was suffering from character faults of laziness or lack of discipline that had been genetically passed on to me by my parents. I felt powerless to change.
As I began the work of LaL, I discovered that it had little to do with genetics; I was, in fact, committed to procrastinating.
Q. Committed? Why would anyone be committed to a counterproductive behavior?
A. It’s a powerful concept. The light bulb moment for me around my own procrastination came when I realized I was committed to procrastinating because it was serving me in an unconscious way.
If we behave counter-productively, and can’t stop it, then we must be getting something very potent from that behavior. In order to make a change, you need to uncover what that is for you.
So, using the example of my procrastination, I was able to ascertain that behind this judgment that I was lazy and undisciplined, there was a layer of fear and anxiety.
It was the fear of being stupid. If I started early, did my very best work and then delivered something less than a stellar outcome, I would have to confront that I wasn’t smart enough to succeed at this new level.
I couldn’t deal with that. So my ego found a tradeoff. Put it off until the last moment, then whip it out in a fury of stressful productivity. If the outcome is mediocre, it’ll be due to my dysfunctional procrastination habit, not my intrinsic intelligence.
At LaL, we call that a benefit. I had an ego benefit which protected me from feelings of failure or inadequacy. In my particular case that benefit was so compelling, I was willing to behave in a very frustrating way to maintain it.
What I want to illustrate with my example is that by identifying your fears and “benefits”, you can get to the root cause of your choices. If I’m committed to a behavior I don’t like, what is my ego getting from it? How is it protecting me or making me feel more comfortable through avoiding things that might be unpleasant?
The unconscious reward I get from that behavior benefits me short-term as a survival mechanism. I’m trying to escape negative feelings in the here-and-now. If you were to ask, from a five-year perspective, is this behavior of benefit to you?, we would have a different answer.
Q. Once a person has identified the root cause of their behavior, what do they do about it? What’s the next step in resolving and moving beyond it?
A. Change requires rewiring the original driver. At some point in our formative years we learned that this kind of behavior helped us avoid unwanted feelings or experiences.
Let’s take conflict avoidance, another prevalent behavior. If I don’t say what I really think, others are less likely to get upset or shut me down. We’re less likely to have unpleasant conflict and more likely to have a harmonious relationship.
The relationships I do have might not be as deep as they could be. We might end up avoiding certain important topics. Some needs that really matter to me might not get met, but I’m successfully avoiding what I’ve learned in my emotional past should be avoided.
The problem is that now I’m in my 40’s, and this avoidance no longer serves me. But I keep on with it anyway, because that old memory of getting yelled at by my parents is still operating in the background, at an implicit level. In our seminars we teach people how to revisit these experiences, draw more mature emotional conclusions about them and then let go of what doesn’t work anymore.
When we’re able to rewire events like this we actually gain the ability to tell ourselves, it’s okay to risk that reaction because today I have the capacity to deal with it. I can respond skillfully if I come up short on a project or someone gets angry. When I was five years old, I couldn’t.
So you learn to bring your emotional presence to a more mature point and that allows you to make more conscious and effective choices around these challenging situations.