What Keeps You — And Nearly Everyone Else — from Changing

Here’s the scenario. You have an underperforming employee. You counsel them. They acknowledge their shortcomings and commit to change. Nothing, or not enough, happens. You counsel again. And again. Until finally, you decide to part ways.

If this hasn’t happened to you yet, then you haven’t been in a leadership position long enough. Failure to get employees to change is one of the most common complaints of managers.

Several years ago, a colleague introduced the concept to me of “competing commitments,” a theory explained in this Harvard Business Review article . The idea is that underneath someone’s commitment to you to change, they have an underlying, even stronger commitment to something else. For example, someone who says outwardly they want a promotion avoids the tougher assignments required because they are actually fearful of not measuring up. Often the person isn’t even fully conscious of this competing commitment, and therefore, it’s up to the leader to help them figure it out so it can be addressed. Only then will the desired change occur.

This is helpful to understand when your own frustration as a manager gets high. But what happens when that someone who fails to change is you? I come back to this the competing commitment idea often, both in regards to managing others and to managing myself. After all, the same principle applies. Almost all of us have some personal change we’d like to make, yet we just don’t follow though – healthier lifestyle anyone? More focus on networking? Time management? Recently, I read Marcus Buckingham’s new book for women entitled Find Your Strongest Life and these concepts just slammed into each other. (First of all, this book is a must-read for working mothers. It has good points for anyone, but he really targets this group.)

Buckingham cites significant research that women’s happiness levels are going down, both as a generation and over the course of individual lives. In other words, we start off less happy than we used to and it only goes downhill from there. He gives a lot of reasons for it, including the fact that the myriad of options women have these days takes a toll. We have higher expectations of ourselves, and plenty of room for second guessing. As with Buckingham’s previous research, this book posits that we find more happiness when we play to our strengths – instead of trying to do everything, we focus on what makes us feel stronger. Rather than perfect balance, we should strive for strategic imbalance.

It’s my belief that both genders suffer from many of these phenomena. We have many options, which can often be paralyzing. We strive so hard for balance, and it stresses us out with its fleeting attainability. We say we want growth, yet we fear risking what we have. We are strategic so we recognize the change that should happen, and are then extra hard on ourselves when we fail to enact it. And we often suffer from a predisposition to take on way more than we should, stripping the joy from the activities we used to love. If you want to change yourself or help someone else to change, knowing the competing commitment is the place for the heavy lifting.

Try reflecting on these questions to start:

1. What change do you know you need to make?

2. What gives you energy? What zaps you of it?

3. What positive reinforcement (either external or internal) do you get from maintaining the status quo?

4. What’s the price of the status quo?

We all need to figure out and embrace change for ourselves, and on our own terms. Determining the answers to these questions can help you figure out why you are really resisting change, and what it will take to get you moving forward.

Speaking of change, for those doing my Try Something New Challenge inspired by Seth Godin’s Poke the Box, my April activity was taking my first piano lesson. It’s been on my bucket list for years, so I bought one and did it. I’m definitely feeling some musical neurons firing that were long dormant…and having loads of fun. Now, May’s challenge…

Note: Portions of this blog also appear on my column for Entrepreneur.com.


About kristihedges
Executive coach, leadership development consultant, Forbes.com blogger, Entrepreneur.com contributor, author of Power of Presence (AMACOM).

One Response to What Keeps You — And Nearly Everyone Else — from Changing

  1. Nothing like a new activity to shake you up, especially something completely different. So what’s May’s challenge???

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