Forming new habits- how to support in 5 steps

Forming new habits- how to support in 5 steps

I recently received a flyer promoting a 2 day training program on Consulting Skills.  Now I have nothing against training programs and I believe that when done well they do deliver some value.

This program seemed jam packed with tools and techniques for example if you signed up for this 2 day program you received:-

  • The 34 essentials you need to begin a successful initiative
  • The 9 important steps to ensure you add value
  • The knowledge of when to use Expert and Collaborative modes
  • The 24 ways to run better initial meetings
  • The 4 powerful ways to boost your active listening
  • The 20 ways to increase your information gathering
  • The keys for building rapport and overcoming resistance
  • Over 150 action steps and 10 important ways to boost your effectiveness
  • A 7-step process to help you say no
  • The 23 ways to prepare persuasive presentations
  • The 6 ways to handle difficult people during presentations
  • The next steps to lock in client commitments
  • The 30 practical ways to reposition your team as business partners
  • The list goes on

As I read through the substantial list I could feel myself becoming a bit overwhelmed.  This program seems to provide you with a tool or technique to deal with every situation a Consultant may face.

I don’t believe that this training program developer had an expectation that you would be an expert in everything they cover in the two days.  They probably would like you to know that there is a tool or technique to use and where to find it.  But how many would develop the habits to start using them?

If the statistics are anything to go by, we tend to remember less than 10% of what we learn in a training program.  Why? Because our old habits rule.  What support can leaders give to support developing new habits?

I remember working with a senior manager at a previous company who was honoured to have been sent on a leadership program costing over $10,000 + flights/accommodation.  However 12 months later, he hadn’t worked on any of the actions he wanted to as a result of the training.  Worse still his manager had never had a conversation with him about the training program.

The opportunity for this manager to unlock and realise their potential was lost.

I believe that the majority of participants who attend training programs do so with the best of intentions of developing new skills and knowledge to make them better in their jobs.

I also believe that the majority of training providers develop their programs with the intention of providing new skills and knowledge so that participants improve and are better in their jobs.

Both parties come together with great intention but what is the real impact?

Usually very little.

Unfortunately there is a big gap between what the participant learns at the training course and what they actually do with it.  Our habits are so strong that we need to make the changes.  I see this being a great opportunity for a leader make a real impact and receive good return on their investment at the same time.

Here is why.

When we attend good quality training programs, we activate our prefrontal cortex which opens us up to discovering new perspectives, exploring new concepts and seeing new possibilities of what we can do with the new knowledge.

Next, our Neo Cortex is activated so we process the new information by analysing it and putting it into practice through various program activities such as role plays, group discussions, case studies etc.  These two parts of our brain are generally what we use when we attend training programs.

Our brains are filled with oxytocin which makes us feel happy, engaged, and trusting of others.  We enjoy this feeling.

But in order for the new skills and knowledge to really stick, we also need to engage our limbic brain.  We need to form new habits.

The limbic brain is where we store memories and habits.  It is also where our emotions are centred.  The limbic brain is one of our oldest brain regions and operates without consciousness.

The limbic brain works side by side with the primitive brain and together they remain vigilant for potential threat and harm.  It is our default system and has been very successful in keeping the human race surviving.

Going back to our scenario, the employee returns to work and the high levels of oxytocin experienced during the training have now disappeared.  The employee faces the reality of the work place and starts to feel uncertain or even anxious about whether the changes they want to make should actually happen.  This is our primitive brain in action.  It is checking for potential threats and risks.  Our preference for stability and certainty overwhelm our desire for something different and we so feel uncertain.  Most of us lose our motivation at this stage as it all looks too hard.

We may survive, we just won’t thrive.

Think about how you operate every day.  From your routine of getting out of bed and getting to work on time; where you sit in a meeting; and how you go about attending to your workload.  For most of us, these are things we do without thinking.  They are habits; safe predictable sets of behaviours which our primitive brain loves. We are surviving.

Around 95% of what we do in a day we do without really thinking about it.  We live our lives primarily by our habits and beliefs.

Our brain’s wiring supports these habits through strong networks of neuron activations.  The more we use the networks the stronger the connections become.  This is why habits are so difficult to change.

You cannot break habits you can only replace them.

Think about this

When you were a child you would have learnt the words to a song and you would have sung it a lot.  Many years later you are able to sing that song even though you haven’t done for so long.  By learning the words to the song and singing it repeatedly you create a strong network of neural activity in your brain – just like a habit.  All of us know the words of hundreds of songs, each replacing the former.  We never think about the song unless we are prompted to reactivate the network by hearing the tune or reliving a past memory in our mind.  Studies have found patients with Dementia can even remember songs yet cannot recognise family.

Just like you cannot forget a song, you cannot break a habit; they somehow remain intact in the electro-chemical systems of the brain.

Instead of breaking old/ineffective habits replace them.

This is easier said than done given our brain’s preference for stability and consistency.

People say it takes 21 days to develop a new habit or 3 months for people to really change.  What they are essentially saying is that it takes time and repetition to build a new neural network in your brain.

Leaders can have a significant role to play here in helping employees close the gap between intention and new habit formation through supporting their development of new brain networks.  The best asset a leader can possess is the ability to ask questions that prompt deep thinking and insight to make these connections.

Here are some guidelines that leaders can follow to increase the opportunity of forming new brain networks

Create the attachment

We commonly talk about what we want to do and how we will do it.  However not a lot of people know why they do what they do.  You will come to recognise this by their answers such as “because it’s easier or, “because it saves money”.  These answers have no connection to the emotions located in the limbic brain.

Unless we understand why we want to do it we will fail to connect with the limbic brain and therefore we will struggle to create a new habit.  The old habit has an emotional connection, even though you may not know what it is.  It will always the default habit if an emotional connection is not found for the new network.

Creating the attachment to our emotions is the first stage of developing lasting change.

Going back now to the employee who has just returned from the training course let’s just say that they want to implement the “7 step process to say “no””.

To help them discover why they want to do this, a good place to start would be to explore the employee’s reasons and why it is important for them to focus on this technique.

Use questions like

  • Why did this technique stand out most for you?
  • If you did this process, how do you see yourself in the future?
  • What do you believe stands in your way of achieving the change?
  • What will success look like?

Tiny steps

Often times when we set ourselves goals, we inadvertently set ourselves up for failure.  Remember that our brains prefer stability not change.  If the goal creates too much uncertainty our limbic brain it will trigger a threat/fear response causing us to resist.

The key is to use tiny challenges.

Instead of expecting our employee to implement a whole process, encourage the employee to break down their goal into tiny challenges and to tackle these one at a time.

For example in 2016 the Manager of the British Olympic cycling association created enormous success for his athletes by breaking each section of their cycling strategies into very small activities.  He then asked the coaches to look for a 1% improvement in each of the activities.  The result of that was the British cycling team won their first Olympic gold medals in many years at the London Olympics.

The key – do small activities and small improvements

Experiment and test

The real success of coaching is allowing the employee to experiment, improve, and repeat.  It is the classic sports coaching technique.  An athlete for example completes the task, and then sits down with the coach to discuss the results in detail and decide what would be an appropriate adjustment.  The athlete goes out and experiments again and repeats the process.   Tiny challenges tested and then improved.

Reflect  and repeat

This is the often neglected phase of helping employees create new neural networks for improvements to their behaviour/performance.  It is further compounded by the fact that we have become so busy in our lives that we feel we have little time to spend reflecting.

From a brain network strengthening perspective, reflection is a key part.  When we reflect we visualise in our minds ie we create a movie, of what happened.  We can visualise scenarios and analyse our efforts and impact.

Did you know that around 65% of our brain is used for visual processing?

Well before our ancestors had language they drew pictures and created dances to tell stories and communicate.  The strength of reflection comes from this very ability.  It helps us connect new learning with existing knowledge and to predict an outcome.

Leaders can encourage this brain activity by encouraging the employee to reflect on their experience each time they practice/experiment by answering three questions

  • What happened?
  • What worked?
  • What could be done differently next time?

Deliver on commitments

I haven’t met a person who hasn’t been disappointed by a promise being broken by someone.

Promises and commitments connect deeply with our need to trust and belong.  When promises are made, as recipients of the promise, we put in place an agreement that has no guarantee.  We have no control over the outcome and so we are left feeling vulnerable.  This is a very risky state for our brains as we are pretty much putting ourselves at risk for potential harm.  However our need to trust and to belong are very strong and so we are prepared to accept a promise/commitment because we believe that the rewards for doing so are worthwhile.

This is why we feel so disappointed when a promise is broken.  Our ability to trust impacts us at our core.

When coaching an employee remember that is already a risky exercise for them.  It is essential therefore to build trust by agreeing to and delivering on your commitments.  Again just a couple of simple questions is all that is needed

  • What will you commit to doing?
  • What I commit to do?

Send a quick email to confirm and then act.

The training program I used in this blog has so many tools and techniques an employee would struggle to implement them all.  When there are a number of actions or tools, an employee is better served by focussing on one at a time.  This may sound time consuming but if you repeated the process explained above over the course of a year your employee may have implemented up to twelve new skills / behaviours, and that is usually 12 more than they will have achieved on their own.

A goal broken into tiny challenges is far more palatable for the brain’s mechanisms leading to greater achievement.

Finally, you may read this and think this is all well and good but you don’t have time put all this effort in one employee.  I invite you to consider this

By having the right conversation and asking good questions, these conversations can be achieved in 15 minutes.

That’s just long enough to enjoy a cup of coffee with them.

Creative Thinking – it’s child’s play

Creative Thinking – it’s child’s play

It’s a sign of the times really.  We have become increasingly busy in our work and private lives.  Talk to anyone and they will lament about how they have no time.  They say they are so busy that they don’t have the chance to be bored.

One of my clients believes whole heartedly that kids should be allowed to be bored during school holidays.  She believes it’s the best way for them to spark their creative thinking and imagination.  She believes her boys will benefit from having the chance to think creatively and make up games to play.

I remember when our stepdaughters were young and spent school holidays with us.  I too believed that kids should be allowed to be bored and that they didn’t need to be entertained every day.  Unfortunately on their “bored” days they literally sat around and did little of their own entertaining.  It was as though they were unable to be creative.

But during summer holidays something wonderful happened.  They couldn’t wait to go in the swimming pool where they’d spend hours playing delightfully girly games of mermaids and living on tropical islands.  For some reason they weren’t able to tap into their imagination when they were in the house, but could readily do so when in the pool.

It was an early lesson for me about the importance of environment on creative thinking.

We are all capable of being creative regardless of what we think.  I have often said that I don’t possess a creative bone in my body.  But my understanding of what being creative meant was limited.  I perceived creativity to be about art and music both of which I don’t do well at.  However I recently discovered that I have a creativeness when it comes to problem solving.  This is when I feel I am at my most creative.

What stops our ability to be creative?

Brain scans show high levels of activity in prefrontal cortex when we are thinking creatively.  This means that many of the networks associated with creative thinking are centred in the prefrontal cortex.

Research has also shown that when we feel distrust, insecurity and/or threat this triggers the release of cortisol which prepares the body for a fight or flight response.  Cortisol shuts down the activity in the prefrontal cortex to conserve energy rendering it ineffective.

When our prefrontal cortex functionality is impacted by cortisol, our ability to innovate and create is reduced.

So it’s not that we able to think creatively, we need to feel safe and trusted in order to be so.  We need to have our prefrontal cortex open and operating.

How does creative thinking or a lack thereof, impact a business?

We often hear the need for employees to be creative, adaptable and flexible in order for the company to thrive in today’s challenging environment.   They are certainly key ingredients for business success.

However this can imply that the responsibility for being innovative and creative lies with the individual: that employee contribution and the working environment are not linked.

In reality it is the Leaders who need to create an environment that encourages employees to engage their prefrontal cortex.  They are the ones who must model and develop the relationships, the conversations and the engagement of the workforce.  Great leaders have great followers. They know that trust and healthy relationships bring the best out of people.  Neuroscience shows the impact of good leadership and how it triggers activity in the prefrontal cortex rather than the threat response regions of the brain.  Great leaders may not understand neuroscience; they just know that what they do works.

A “prefrontal cortex” friendly culture is one where all employees feel that they belong.  Their position descriptions are clear and they understand the contribution their role makes towards the vision of the company.  They feel that they can talk openly and frankly about their aspirations and their concerns without fear of judgment or retribution.  They feel challenged, trusted, and respected and have the resources needed to succeed.  Creative thinking is possible in all employees when the environment is right.

When a workplace has such a culture you will find high levels of collaboration, continuous improvement and achievement.  Systems and processes will run smoother, relationships with customers and suppliers will be stronger and the company may well be far more successful than they thought possible.   This all contributes to a healthy bottom line.

Of course this isn’t a warm and fuzzy scenario.  Success and achievement only happens with effort.

When leaders have the trust of their team, and vice versa, they can challenge the team more and place greater levels of responsibility on them.  They can push them out of their comfort zones and through difficult situations.  When conflict arises, and it will, they can resolve them in a manner that maintains the relationships.

This is what Apple did between 2003 and 2006.

Steve Jobs wanted to create the Apple “smart phone” (not called that at the time).  He wanted to take the functionality of a laptop/ tablet and put it into a mobile phone.  Whilst tablets were coming more popular, significantly increasing the functionality of mobile phones was something new.   Apple brought some of their engineers together and they were given the brief to design and create a mobile phone capable of the same functionality as you had in a laptop or tablet.

Steve Jobs’ vision was clear and so was their need to be highly innovative.  They had to operate using their prefrontal cortex simply because whilst there was a vision, there were no instructions.  The engineers had to work together to develop something completely new.   They had to take existing functionality and fit it inside a mobile phone.  They needed to collaborate, innovate, design, and experiment in order to make it possible.

Yes there were high expectations for them to deliver, Steve Jobs is well known to be highly driven, but there was also the trust, resources, and the space given for the engineers to thrive.

In 2007 the I-phone was released.  Steve Jobs’ vision that mobile phones were the future for portable information has certainly come to fruition, however it was his engineers’ creativeness that made it happen.  This would not have been possible if they were unable to access their prefrontal cortex.  It would not have happened if they felt threatened and judged.

How different would it be if we were all able to work with the imagination of 5-7 year olds, working together in thinking up different scenarios, developing new ideas for using the resources available to us, sharing what the future could be like?

The truth is our childhood brain still exists; it is called our Prefrontal Cortex.  Over the years we have put the brakes on it.  We really can change the future by changing how we use our brain.  If we focus on the environment in which we and our employees work in, we can significantly enhance the creative thinking which will lead to improvements in all areas of the business.

Conversational Intelligence and the art of Priming

I attended a conference last week.  That isn’t noteworthy in itself except for the big learning I got from it.

 

You see I experienced first hand the value of priming.

 

So what is Priming?

 

It is a technique that is used heavily in Conversational Intelligence ® that is proven to increase the levels of trust with and between people.  When we prime people we open them up to higher order thinking, sharing what’s on their mind and curious to understand other perspectives.  It is a fantastic technique to use when you have to deal with an unpleasant situation.

 

The priming that I was subjected to was not intentional; in fact I see it as accidental.  It happened as a result of a meeting the state presidents attended the day before the conference.  We got to know each other and spent an afternoon sharing, suggesting, challenging and understanding.  I left feeling that I belonged to the team.

 

How often when you attend conferences do you know many people there?  Do you find it hard sometimes to find people who you connect with and share your point of view?  How does this impact what you absorb from the presentations?

 

As a result of the presidents meeting I had a very positive outlook on the 2 day conference.  We found ourselves touching base regularly during the conference and we talked at length about the topics.  We didn’t have to spend time getting to know each other because we had already established the team.  Instead our time was spent discussing the concepts and contexts and gaining a deeper meaning.  I felt involved, respected and trusted.

 

Priming, as a technique, is about engaging people’s higher order thinking.  It does this by down regulating their fears and uncertainties about the situation.  Only when this happens can people move into higher brain thinking.  This is because fear and uncertainly release cortisol which would otherwise shut down these parts of the brain.  Priming helps move people out of their default protective behaviour patterns that create distrust and insecurity.

 

How can this be achieved?

 

Supposing you need to speak to your team about a new cost cutting requirement sweeping the organisation.  These discussions are never easy and you know that it will result in them becoming upset &/or insecure about their jobs.  Teams become demotivated, their performance drops and bickering increases.

 

Priming offers a different outcome.

 

The intention of priming is for you to gain an understanding of what your team members are thinking about the situation, what their top concerns are, and what they need out of the meeting.  Your role in priming is to ask questions, clarify points and to listen without judging.  This works by settling their anxieties, giving them a space to open up and be understood.  We feel better when we have had a chance to share what is on our minds but we can only do this when we feel safe.  Therefore it is critical not to judge, crticise or defend your opinion.  Your goal is to reduce their anxiety and cortisol.  Conversational Intelligence ® is focused on brain activity and learning how to manage your own and that of others.

 

Now when you have the team meeting, your team will be ready to tackle the issues rather than become inwardly focused and operating out of their primitive brain.  To maintain the energy you continue to ask questions and listen without judgement allowing the team to digest the requirements and talk.  You will find the team more engaged as a result.

 

The key to all the suggested techniques that I offer is to experiment, fail, reflect, tweak, and experiment again to find a way that works for you.  Unfortunately there are no magic spells or quick fixes to this technique or any others in the Conversational Intelligence ® portfolio.  Practice will make improvement and you will see the benefits from the changes that take place.

 

If you would like more information on how to use the priming technique, please connect with me.

How to Engineer Conversations that Deliver

Did you know that up to 70% of your conversations fail to deliver the message or the outcome you expect.

 

What could this be saying about the way you lead, collaborate, and work?

 

Conversation is the foundation of what it is to be human.  Together with a few birds and whales, we are the only species to have the FOXP2 gene that enables us to use language to communicate.  We have been given a great gift.

 

So why is our communication so poor?  Let me show you.

 

Science is now providing rich evidence on how conversation impacts us at a neurochemical level and explains why we so often transmit the wrong messages.

 

Whilst the science is complex, the explanation isn’t.

 

Join me on my next webinar as I show you the impact of conversation on the brain and teach you how to structure your conversation to get great outcomes.  You will be able to change the way you communicate immediately after the webinar is over.

 

The 90 minute webinar will be held on Friday March 10 commencing 9.30am WST.  Please click here for the registration page and webinar link.

Self Awareness is not a dirty word.

I was talking to a friend yesterday.  I hadn’t spoken to her in a little while and so I asked her how her company was going with the downturn in the mining sector.  The company she works for supplies to the sector.

 

The good news was that she felt her company had sufficient alternative markets that they can focus on these until the local market improves.  The bad news was that the need to move quickly to secure markets elsewhere has negatively impacted the culture of the organisation.  She said that there is a lot of blaming and conflict between teams and it is getting worse.  The GM’s persona has changed considerably, so too the behaviour of the leadership team. She said that over the past 18 months motivation and enthusiasm across the organisation has plummeted.

 

So what has happened here?

 

Much of our behaviour, thoughts, and feelings are the result of unconscious processes in our brains.  Think about it.  You spend most of your day doing and saying things that you don’t consciously think much about.  From your habitual morning routines of breakfast, exercise, and getting to work, to how you do the tasks you do at work and how you react to others.  Pretty much all of this uses stuff we already have stored in the brain.  We rely heavily on our past experience, knowledge and skills to do the activities we do and we act and behave as a result of what we have stored. Our brains allow these processes to occur knowing that they will not harm us and generally will be safe.

 

This is a good thing for our brain because the amount of processing of incoming sensory information from our eyes, ears, skin etc that it would otherwise have to do in order to interpret our world moment to moment, would surely cause the brain to explode.

 

Imagine waking up every morning and having to decide your next move based on what you saw/heard/tasted/felt.  You would certainly feel that everything and everyone was a potential threat.  Your anxiety levels would be high and you would be on edge all the time.  This could not be good for your heart!!

 

When we come across a new or different situation, this is exactly what happens.  In my friend’s workplace the down turn in the mining industry has meant that the reliable and trusted ways of working no longer apply and this has put significant strain on the business and people.  Everyone’s brains are reacting to the situation in their most primitive way: Fight or Flight.  This is a normal reaction but it causes so many problems in an organisation when this is not recognised.

 

Research has shown that the brain prepares us for the threat by releasing cortisol and testosterone to ready the body for high intensity activity (either fighting or running away). This is our fight or flight reaction.  It is our default response to anything new or threatening.  Interestingly, the brain does not differentiate between real or perceived threat so both result in the same reaction.

 

The cortisol shuts down the higher order thinking and executive parts of the brain and thus the brain relies solely on memory and past experience to remove the threat.  This makes sense because you already know how to escape or how to fight given you’ve survived previous threatening situations.  You really don’t want to be using you higher level brain to develop a new skill or decide on potential options for survival in the face of the threat.  You want to react right now.

 

The level of actual threat in our day to day lives is significantly lower than it was in primitive times however our brain responds just the same. Our brains do not know the difference between life and death situation and the minor threats we encounter day to day so our reactions are similar internally.

 

Going back now to my friend’s company, the GM and the leadership team will have responded to the situation as any brain will have done ie defaulted to primitive responses.  Their brains will have perceived a threat and triggered the release of cortisol and that will have closed down their executive and thinking brains.  The changes in their behaviour indicate that they are now trying to protect and defend rather than seeking out solutions to the problems.

 

A big problem is that this primitive system is self sustaining until the threat is removed.  As a cave man/woman, you would have fought or fled the threat and either lived or died.  The threat would normally be short lived.

 

In today’s business world unfortunately, a threat can last months or years depending on the situation and the person’s mindset.  During this time the brain is constantly releasing cortisol and therefore shutting down the parts of the brain that would be most helpful for removing the threat.  Responding in a defensive protective manner becomes your normal persona.

 

Whilst our response to threat is normal, it is what happens next that defines the leadership team.

 

A leadership team with high self awareness will know what they are feeling and why.  They would consciously work on decreasing the cortisol in their brains and increasing the use of their executive and thinking brains.  They would be building trust in others and involving them in finding ways to improve the situation.  Where threats release cortisol, trust releases oxytocin, a hormone that, amongst other things, promotes creativity, strategic thinking and good decision making.

 

Leadership teams with low self awareness spend little time reflecting on what they are thinking or feeling.  They lose their ability to listen and share instead becoming opinionated and addicted to being right.  This is why disagreements and communication breakdowns occur.  Leaders can suffer amygdala hijacking causing outbursts and poor decision making.  As the situation continues their anxiety causes them to be sensitive to the nuances of others or their surroundings, both real and perceived.  Leaders become distrustful of other and begin to micromanage.  Many conversations that should be had, remain unsaid.

 

Most leaders have attended leadership development programs and self awareness is an important topic in such programs.  Yet I see and hear time and again of senior leaders and CEO’s behaving without much self awareness.  The situation where my friend works is not unusual.  I do believe that leaders and CEO’s have the best intention however without self awareness they have no understanding of the impact they have.

 

It is clear that training courses alone don’t prepare leaders well enough to deal effectively with stressful situations.  Self awareness is a journey of discovery that occurs best when you have a trusted advisor.  Someone who can help navigate and keep you heading in the right direction.  Mentors and coaches are ideal because they have nothing other than your best interests at heart.

 

When you are next confronted by a situation that threatens you or makes you fearful, how will you respond?  Remember that to feel threatened and feel fear is normal, it is what you do next that defines you.

 

Want to understand more about your brain and how to manage it effectively?  Call or email me to arrange a time for a chat.

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