Bad behaviour: it’s all about perspective

Posted December 12, 2016 in Leadership, Self-Insight

My daughter has one enduring behaviour. She leaves straw wrappers all around our house. Or at least that’s what my husband thinks. He seems to be able to spot them everywhere. The quickest way to get him to flip out is because of one of those pesky errant plastic wrappers. He then translates that behavioural misdemeanour into a view that my daughter isn’t responsible because – afterall – if you can’t throw out a simple straw wrapper, how can you handle any other responsibilities? OK. I’m somewhat exaggerating…but there’s an element of truth in here. One behaviour can get extrapolated into other areas… and the challenge is that – once someone starts seeing an offending behaviour, it can be very hard for them to shift gears and see any new behaviour that you may be trying to demonstrate.

You see, our brains are hardwired to put things into patterns and categories. We need to do that or else we’d be overwhelmed with stimuli. This is true for all things in our life including people’s characteristics and behaviours. After so many interactions with you (and probably not as many as you may think), my brain is going to start to catalog you in a number of ways: how you look, how you react to feedback, your funny quirks, your mannerisms, if I think you’re trustworthy or intelligent, etc. So now imagine if one of your behaviours annoyed me. And then I didn’t let you know about that behaviour at first because, let’s face it, most of us are incredibly crappy at giving direct feedback…especially if it’s behavioural in nature.

So, I just let it fester. And my brain kept looking for examples to reinforce the impression that I have of you that is ‘annoying’. Then, after several months of working together, I finally decided I could no longer ignore your ‘difficult’ behaviour and decided to give you feedback. Maybe it was the first time anyone had ever given you that feedback. Maybe you’d heard it before, but this time you realize it’s pretty serious and you decide you really want to fix it.

So, you put together a plan and start working to improve your behaviour. You work on it for weeks and months. You feel like you’re making good progress and then, one day, you slip up and I say to you (in essence)… ‘hey! you left a straw wrapper on the conference room table!’ Inside you think ‘but I’ve been throwing away my straw wrappers for the past 3 months and you haven’t even noticed!’ And herein lies the problem. When you work on changing your behaviour, you need to make sure that the person who is wanting you to change is looking for the new behaviour…because if they’re not, the only thing their brain is going to be looking for is the old behaviour that fits into their view of you.

But, here’s the main point of this post: as leaders, when you are coaching someone on their behaviour, the onus is also directly on us to actively and consciously start to look for the NEW behaviours. We need to give input and examples to help individuals develop the new behaviours that we want to see. What do they need to ‘START’ doing? (stay away from ‘STOP’ doing because it’s much harder to stop doing a behaviour that to ‘start’ one).

When I coach leaders, the biggest barrier that they often have to overcome is not their willingness to work on their new behaviour. Rather, the biggest barrier is to get the individuals around that person to pay attention and see the new behaviour. As leaders, we need to be aware of our brains bias to categorize individuals and monitor ways that we can make sure we are proactively being part of the solution and helping them shift their behaviours successfully.

As for my daughter, I have told her to loudly announce when she’s throwing out a straw wrapper so that her Dad can hear her each time. Eventually, that will become more annoying than the occasional one that she might forget to throw out. 🙂

Happy leading!


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