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Behavior Change Takes Time for Leaders and Teams

May 25, 2021

By Randy Hall


I was working with a leader a while back and she wanted to create more collaborative meetings in her business.  Her definition of success for these meetings was that people came with creative ideas, shared them freely, and the business came up with better solutions and built a stronger team through the collaborative process.

She did an excellent job creating sets of questions to stimulate discussion and get thoughts and ideas flowing, but when she used them in the meeting she got, as expected, crickets.

I had prepared her for crickets, at least in my mind, but there is always a difference between what we think we told someone to expect and what it feels like when that set of circumstances shows up for them.

She was a little disappointed in the outcome of that next meeting and her impulse was to tell them that if they weren’t going to show up and be collaborative, then collaboration might just not be their thing.  But if we let impulses drive us as leaders, we lose the chance to make choices. 

Luckily, she took some ownership of how her team felt and responded in those meetings going forward, and we went through some considerations that leaders need to have for behavior change in a group setting like this.

When we change our behavior as a leader, sometimes we expect an immediate response by others.  It rarely happens that way.  Behavior change takes a little time.  The new questions she asked in her meeting were the first shift people noticed in the leader’s behavior.  This difference from what they expected from her created stress initially.  Questions like, “why is she doing that”, ``is it really safe to just contribute like this in a group,'' ``what does she really want,” fly into the moments after an unexpected question is asked, especially if history says that this doesn’t usually happen. Once expectations change from “she always runs the meeting” to “she always wants and values contributions in the meeting” then, and only then, will people start to think about how to best contribute.

Speed is a lousy indicator of intention.  How fast people make a shift like this has nothing to do with the quality and sustainability of behavior change.  Ever had a conversation with someone about something they should do differently and then see an immediate change, that didn’t last?  They were better immediately for a week or so, but no real shift happened; there was just willpower application for a few moments here and there. Or their language changed dramatically and quickly, and yet their actual behavior didn't. When we see these things, we just witnessed a New Year’s Resolution kind of change - a flurry of action but no foundational change in thinking or process.  It’s easy to make quick changes through will power, but they will never last unless there are foundational shifts in thinking. And those require processing through thoughts and planning, not just impulses to “do better” or “be different” in the moment. When people think through changes they want to make, create plans for them, get comfortable with a new way of thinking, and then start to create new behaviors for themselves, real lasting change happens.

By the way, if the leader I was coaching had just rushed to use some new questions in the meeting without thinking about why collaboration was important and what she wanted it to do for her team and her culture, she would have quickly reverted to just running the meeting herself when no one responded like she wanted them to.  That would have just introduced more fear and ambiguity into the team, and they would be even less likely to shift behavior next time.  “See, she didn’t really mean it” would have been a likely prevailing thought. Luckily, she took time to process, define success, prepare for it, and build habits that help her achieve it. 

She stuck with her plan and in subsequent meetings let the team know that change was hard for her too, and she had been thinking about this for a while and was sure it felt new and abrupt for them, and she understood that.  They even had a discussion about why collaboration was important for the team in the first place and why they thought it could make them more productive, effective, and more engaged in the work.

She changed the culture on her team in several ways, simply by picking a set of behaviors that were aligned with her definition of success, and ultimately the team’s definition of success as well. Then she turned the behaviors into habits.  The team began to expect the new behaviors, learned that it was safe to share half-baked or unprepared thoughts to stimulate conversation, and ultimately built their own set of new habits for how they prepared for meetings and shared ideas.

Changing your own behavior takes time.  It will also, absolutely cause others to change theirs.  They simply have to go through the same challenging process you did as you shifted your own behavior. They don’t get faster or better at change just because we have a leadership role. Great leaders understand that, expect it, and support it.


What do you think? Let me know in the comments section below.

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