5 Steps Toward Sustainable Change

This is a very busy time of year for many of us.  In the U.S. we just celebrated Thanksgiving and that means, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are both in our sights or at least still visible in our rear-view mirror. The passing of these events means the ever-looming Christmas craziness is just around the corner.

And for many of you that can only mean one thing...

It is performance review time. That time when you will sit down with your supervisor and go over the goals you set for the year and measure your performance against those standards. Or, at least that is how it is supposed to work in theory.

For all of you over-achievers out there,  this can be an anxious time.  Most of us who work in organizations get up every morning and our self-created goal is to do the very best we can every day. Sometimes what we are supposed to do isn’t very clear. Sometimes what we are supposed to do changes, it seems, on an hourly basis. Most times what we know is important to do gets hijacked by the tyranny of someone else's agenda. And sometimes what we were hired to do is not what we end up doing at all.  

No matter what your individual circumstance, I am confident that most of you show up wanting to do the very best that you can with the time you have available. You feel like you have exceeded your goals and far surpassed expectations. Yet you will sit down with your supervisor at some point and the reality is that only so many of you can get that top performance ranking in any given year.  The rules of statistics say that most of you will get an average performance rating every year even though you feel like you deserve much more.

The dilemma you face is that you had what you considered to be an excellent year. Your boss agrees but ranks you as having an average year and then challenges you to “step up your game” to get that top ranking.

I think when most of us get this kind of feedback, it makes us a little defensive, so in the next couple of weeks I am going to share some tips on dealing with critical feedback. 

But for now, I want you to proactively be thinking about what it is that you need to change to get that top performance ranking next year.  Maybe you need to add a skill to your toolbox. Maybe you need to be more assertive with your peers or show a little more empathy with your direct reports. Whatever the case, for most of you the problem isn’t finding what it is you need to change, the question is how to sustain the change you want to make.

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The issue of sustaining change is not a new concept. Kurt Lewen observed in the 1940s that making a change was often very short lived. It's like drinking a Monster energy drink. Sure, you are moving faster or have more focus, but so often, once the caffeine is out of your system, the energy level decreases back to its original level. Lewen noted that something more was needed than a shot-in-the-arm type of boost. Sure, changes can be made in the short-run, but how do you translate that change to long-term outcomes?

5 Steps Toward Sustainable Change

  1. Create a long-term value proposition. The coaching client has to see relevant longterm value in making any change that has been identified. Focusing on a value proposition will often cause the client to wrestle with their own belief system. Without changing what the person believes to be true, old behavioral habits return insidiously. In my health example, I have to associate overeating or eating the wrong foods as being bad for me ten years from now. It is too easy to succumb to temptation if you are focused on getting your short-term needs met. For my client from last week, who was always interrupting, he had to believe that his behavior was rude and that his intention was not to be seen this way. His need to be respected had to triumph over his need to be heard.
  2. Experiment with new behaviors to find a fit. So often I hear coaches talk about practicing new behaviors before they even know if the new behavior will work or not. I like for my clients to experiment with several options to see what will work for them. The fear I have is if this step is skipped then we could end up practicing the wrong behavior and have to go through the process of unlearning and relearning. For me, I had to experiment with reducing the size of my protein choice at dinner, giving up a snack before bed, working out an extra day a week and completely eliminating fried foods.  I played with all of these and finally found that what I wanted to practice was reducing my protein size at dinner. I went from eating an entire chicken breast to only eating a portion size equal to the size of my fist.  
  3. Practice the new behavior in a number of contexts. Then, I practiced this new behavior. When my wife and I grill, we split a chicken breast. When I go out to eat I ask for smaller sizes. When I travel I am conscious not to just go ahead and order the largest meal on the menu because I forgot to have an afternoon snack. To gain sustainability it is important to practice the new behavior across contexts. My client had to practice not interrupting his boss, his peers, his direct reports. He had to practice not interrupting during presentations, and one-on-ones, and on conference calls. 
  4. Identify relational feedback loops. No change can happen in isolation. We all need constant feedback. We need safe places to see if people notice the changes we are making. This is where it can help to share your development goals across a broad number of relationships. This constant feedback loop is critical to making that new behavior a sticky habit. My client would actually say to his direct reports during one-on-one meetings, "My goal is not to interrupt you and finish your sentences during our meeting today. If I do this would you please just get up and put a tick mark on my whiteboard.” Feedback is a gift, all the way through the development process.
  5. Celebrate the noted change. Let the dopamine in your brain flow. You have worked long and hard to gain this change. Likely somewhere between 2 and 3 months at a minimum. Why not have a party? Why not let the good feeling of accomplishment and a job well-done flow through to those who have been with you on your development journey.

I would be really interested in knowing if you have other coaching sustainability tips. Why not leave a comment or share an experience below. I would love to hear from you!