March 21, 2011 - by: Jennifer Garvey Berger
Maybe you’re a leader looking for one of your team members to change. Maybe she’s aloof, stand-offish, and offends people with her cryptic and occasionally scathing responses to their questions. Maybe he talks too much, a mush of ideas spouting forth with little action behind them. Maybe she confuses people, or his team lacks motivation or spark; you’d like this person to be more thoughtful, or perhaps more decisive, or maybe more inspirational.
Or, maybe the person you’d like to change is yourself.
The question I ask clients in this situation (borrowing language from Harvard University’s Ronald Heifetz) is whether it’s a technical change or an adaptive change that they want. The difference is huge and shapes how you might go about moving toward that change.
A technical change is a linear process that leads to someone knowing more stuff:
Lack information/ tools→input new information/ new tools→have new information/ tools.
This is the kind of change you want if you have a Luddite executive who won’t send email and can’t open an attachment. The fix is easy: send him to a course, upgrade his laptop, and all will be well.
An adaptive change is a different story altogether. This is if you want someone to behave differently: not simply to use a new tool or a new piece of information, but to show up to meetings in a different way, give feedback to his colleagues in a different way, or think about solving problems in more expansive or creative ways.
When my clients talk about wanting a colleague to be more strategic, inspirational, or reflective, the key words for me aren’t the obvious ones—strategic, inspirational, reflective. The key word is be.
If you’re wanting others to be different, that’s an adaptive challenge. Although we often treat it as a technical challenge—sending the colleagues away for a three-day workshop on strategic thinking or inspirational leadership—research and experience will tell you that doesn’t work. Instead, what works is to figure out how to change not just what the colleagues know, but who they are.
Changing who we are is not effortless work, but it is possible. The first step is knowing whether that’s what you want. If it is, you need an adaptive change plan. This is not a straightforward addition of a tool or piece of information, but rather a series of interconnected pieces. After all, your behavior emerges from your thoughts, and your thoughts emerge from your world view: the sense you make of the world.
Try to change just the behavior and you’ll fail (as do more than 90% of well-intentioned new year’s resolutions). In the heat of the moment, you won’t remember to be strategic or inspirational or reflective. You’ll just be, well, you.
Instead, you actually have to change your world view, and the thoughts that arise from seeing the world the way you do.
How do you get started? Spend the first few days just noticing. When do I do the thing I’d like to stop doing (or when do I not do the thing I wish I were doing)? What was happening around me? In the quiet of my office afterwards, what did I wish I had done/ said/ thought? When you’ve collected some data about what you’re doing now, you’ll be ready to think about what you can do differently tomorrow.
The Action Plan
• Figure out whether it’s a technical change you want or an adaptive one.
• Ask: do I want to change what I know (technical), or how I behave (adaptive)?
• If it’s an adaptive change, begin to notice when you aren’t behaving as you’d like to. What was going through your mind at that time? What seemed to block your ability to act differently in that moment?