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.

Work life balance – what is the future

Work life balance – what is the future

Are you available 24/7?  Are you expected to be? Should you be?

At a recent networking event we were asked two questions:-

  1. Would you get an implant that enabled you to work without needing to sleep….ever?
  2. What if your peer got one?

Wow, that caused us all to rethink work life balance!

Where is this all heading?

Is there something here that we need to be aware of?

Will Corporations soon take control of our lives, our freedom, our choices?

Have they already?

I can’t speak for anyone else but I am glad that I am not entering the workforce at this moment in time.  Whilst I am confident that as humans we will work it out, there is a huge pressure being placed on individuals, particularly professionals and leaders, to be available to their employers anytime and anywhere.   Work life balance is fast becoming a figment of imagination.

Think globalisation and managing remotely being part of teams or organisations located throughout the world. Think technology and the possibilities that will be opened up that we don’t yet know about.

I know a manager who was promoted to manage not only his department in Australia, but also businesses in China, Brazil, and the USA.  He now reports to two different Directors, both who are located in Europe.  Most days he starts his day at 7am and works a normal 10 hour day here in Australia.  He then has between 2-4 teleconferences most week nights, sometimes not finishing until midnight.

Should we push back or is this the new normal?

I really don’t know.

If people started using implants to boost their productivity how would that change the expectations of an employee?

Should we still be demanding work life balance or have we gone past this now?

Sorry no tips or techniques with this post, just sharing something on my mind and lots of unanswered questions.

What are your thoughts?  How do you see the world of work evolving?

How you can improve your communication style

How you can improve your communication style

I met with a client during the week.  We have been spending time lately on his relationships with his team and peers.  He felt that he had a good leadership style and quite an effective communication style.  However he had been given feedback that he didn’t involve people and tended to go with his own ideas.

Over the time of our relationship, my client was able to provide a lot of information about his team members and that suggested to me that my client was a leader who was capable of using social as well as technical skills in his role.  Research has found that competence in social skills accounts for the majority of difference between good and great leaders and yet few leaders develop this competence.

What do I mean competence in social skills?

Neuroscience has found that we are at our most productive, creative and innovative when we activate our prefrontal cortex.  This region of the brain is responsible for these outcomes.  It is also the region that enables us to trust, connect and engage with others.  The more we interact with others, the more open we are and the more we innovate.  Being social is not about being soft. It is about using the brains around us to create possibility.

I was pleased that my client had the capacity and inclination to develop these skills.

A leaders’ social competence shows up in their communication style.  When they have high social competence their communication style develops trust with people and engages them.  Their conversations are inclusive and open rather than judging and closed. Leaders with low social competence tend to be those who must be right and must have control.  Their communication style tends to shut conversations down.  These leaders do most of the talking and listen long enough to develop their next argument without consideration of what others are thinking.   People around these types of leaders tend not to provide input, challenge or question.  The feedback my client received suggested that this might be happening around him.

To get an understanding of my client’s behaviour I sat in on a few his meetings to observe his communication style.  I counted up the amount of time he spoke vs the time he allowed others.  I noted the types of questions he asked and the how he put his views and ideas forward.  This type of assessment occurs often in the elite sports sector so that the athlete learns how and where they need improve their performance.   Bringing this concept into leader development is a fantastic way for a leader to improve theirs.

My observations showed that my client did allow space for open discussion in meetings.  However the big finding was how he tended to involve only a few of the members of his team in the conversations.   We discussed this and he admitted that the people he involved most were the ones that thought like he did.  He also said that when he did ask for input, some of his team simply referred the decision back to him.  He said he found this frustrating.

My client is very keen to be a great leader and he understands that his greatest resource is his people.  However he admitted he was reticent to change and improve his communication style as he believed that this might have a negative impact on his efficiency in delivering his KPI’s.

We discussed how this might look using a number of scenarios and with this my client decided on a model to experiment with.  He wanted to have everyone’s input and believed this was very important.  He was keen to find a better way to run the meetings.

We mapped out some questions that would encourage connection and input of everyone without it sounding too structured.  My client was open to experimenting to find the best way to engage his people and still deliver.  We spoke about the need to get feedback direct from his team which he was uncomfortable in asking for.  I explained that this process provides a great opportunity to practice asking questions, listening to understand, and being non judgmental.  It also shows courage and vulnerability which leaders need to have a healthy dose of.  My client is still nervous about doing this so we will discuss again in another session.

So this is a work in progress for my client but I hope that this helps highlight how you can improve your communication style and become more inclusive and engaging.

If you would like to discuss your own communication style and how you can improve it, please send me an email and I will set up a time to catch up.

Strategic Planning for ground breaking results

Strategic Planning for ground breaking results

A common activity in businesses of all sizes is strategic planning.  Every year the senior leadership team and possibly a pool of employees work together to map out the plans, KPI’s, budgets, and direction for the next 1 – 5 years.

But how much of this strategic planning activity results in significantly improving the current situation?

I once worked for an organisation that was suffering with the downturn in the economy.  They put enormous energy into their strategic planning process involving much of the business over several months.  However instead of making significant improvements to the way they operated, their results showed little change year on year.  There was no money allocated in the budget to invest in people or processes and there wasn’t an appetite for risk or change.  It was as though they were too afraid to do something different.  It was as though the collective mindset of the senior leaders was closed to possibility and opportunity.

What if the strategic planning process stopped being about doing more with less and instead excited people to achieve great things?

Neuroscience has found that our default behaviour lives in our subconscious and involves the primitive brain (defend & protect), and our limbic brain (emotions, beliefs, past experiences).  When we are under pressure &/or feel threatened our brains release cortisol that prepares the body for attack or defence.  Behaviours exhibited include distrust, micromanaging, blaming, right fighting, & risk aversion.

They have also found that cortisol works to shut down the parts of the brain in the face of threat.  This makes sense given our primitive response is to either fight or flee.  Our brain works to conserve and focus our energy on survival.  Unfortunately our primitive brain has not evolved and does not know the difference between facing an enemy or the downturn in the markets and responds to any threat or fear as though it is a life or death situation.

The Pre Frontal Cortex is one part of the brain that cortisol shuts down.  Research has found that this is where trust, creativity, innovation, and possibility reside.  These are the brain activities we need to involve when undertaking strategic planning.  If the strategic planning process is about finding ways to do more with less, creating an environment of uncertainty and insecurity, it is likely that this will trigger fear and threat responses and not creativity.

The trick is to change the way the process is undertaken so that the primitive brain calms down which allows the prefrontal cortex to activate.  This then provides the opportunity for possibilities and ideas to be shared and discussed.

Research has found we are hardwired to grow and develop.  You can see this when you look back at how far we have evolved compared to any other species.  We have this ability because we have a large prefrontal cortex.  It used to be said that what differentiates humans from other animals was our use of language and our use of tools.  Today they have found that what differentiates humans is our ability to look to the future, to continually evolve and seek out possibility.  No other animal species does this.

What are the chances of your strategic planning process transforming the business?  Unless you allow your business to see out possibility, change will be slow.

So the aim of your strategic planning activity should be to have all participants accessing their prefrontal cortex and calming down their fear and threat brain activity.

Here are some six tips to help achieve this

  1. Have a range of activities that are designed to open up the PFC. Examples are
  • Ask all participants in the strategic planning participants identify where they are at on a scale of 1 (I am resisting) – 10 (I’m open). Ask them what it would take to move forward on the scale.
  • Go around the table and ask each participant what their vision is for the business
  • Ask each participant what their number one idea is for turning the business around
  1. Put rules in place for how meeting will run.
  1. Allow people to share concerns, gripes, or views without judgement. Make it a rule that the only responses are either to say thankyou or to ask one of the following question.
  • What if….?,
  • How would that look like….?
  • Can you explain further…..?
  • When you say X what do you mean?
  • How would you have responded / dealt with it?
  1. Hold off making decisions until all input has been provided
  1. Ask everyone what they are prepared to do differently in order for the strategy to be achieved and what support they need to make the changes.
  1. Have all participants go into the workplace and talk about the strategic planning process and the outcomes.

These activities are known to activate the prefrontal cortex.  This creates an environment of trust and belonging empowering people to challenge and question current systems and processes without fear of recrimination. It enables people’s ability to think of possibilities and a different future for the organisation.  Businesses that are struggling to see a brighter future are encouraged to use these principals.

Would you like to learn more about how to conduct your strategic planning differently and get better results?  I would love to see if I can assist either with advice or facilitation.  Call me now.

Stepping off the Ladder of Inference

Stepping off the Ladder of Inference

A company I worked for were creating standard operating procedures for their workshop and site maintenance employees.  A significant contribution had been made by the engineering team in creating the documentation.  The project had costed over a hundred thousand dollars in billed hours and consultancy fees however it hit a brick wall and literally stopped.

The reason was that the principal engineer in the organisation did not want the documents to be printed for use by the workshop personnel and those out on site.

His concern was that the documents contained valuable IP and he was not prepared to allow them to end up in the hands of their competitors.

The story was that about 7 years ago a former manager had set up a business in direct competition as a result of his accessibility to the company IP.

Interestingly the company IP was commonly shared, in printed and electronic form, with suppliers who manufactured parts for the company.  The principal engineer did not find issue with this.

And so the documents remained in a secure setting untouched for three years.

Does your workplace have someone who makes their mind up and won’t change their views?

These people frustrate others because they seem stuck in the past that no amount of convincing will change their mind, even when you have the facts and evidence that points to a different conclusion to what they expect.  They are blind to their opinion being irrational and so you waste so much time trying to change their mind to no avail.  The loss to the business can be huge.

How much easier would it be if these people had an open mind and were prepared to listen?  It would save so much time and enable the business to be more flexible and adapt quicker.

People react this way usually because the introduction of something new or different causes them to feel threatened or fearful of what might happen.  In the principal engineer’s mind he believed that allowing the documents to be printed would lead to another leak of IP.

These reactions occur subconsciously and take less than 0.1 seconds.  The speed of the reaction is due to the part of the brain that is activated.  It is the old brain that is being activated including the primitive brain; responsible for the fight or flight reaction, and the limbic brain where emotions and memories are located.  This area of the brain is our oldest and evolved to protect us as a species.  At the first sense of threat, the old brain prepares the body to either fight or to flee.  Our response to potential or real threat today is no different to how it would have been thousands of years ago.

Cortisol is the neurotransmitter that is released which prepares the body to fight or flee.  Scientists have recently found that cortisol also closes down the higher regions of the brain including the neo cortex; responsible for language and logic, as well as the prefrontal cortex where trust and creativity are located.

With these parts of the brain shut down people only have past memories and experiences to help them make sense of the new information.  It is an unconscious reaction they won’t be aware of it happening but it has a profound effect on their behaviour.  If the memories are negative, as in the case of the principal engineer, we will have a negative response.

How can you prevent or minimise this occurring in yourself or people you work with?

It comes down to the conversation you have because conflict lies within the story.

When people disagree or refuse to listen is it because of how they have interpreted the situation.  They have used assumptions, personal beliefs and reached a conclusion that they strongly hold onto.  As you have read earlier, this occurs very quickly.

Ladder of Conclusions

Ladder of Inference

Drawing conclusions quickly is called going up the Ladder of Inference. Developed initially by Organisational Psychologist Chris Argyris as the Ladder of Inference, later revised by Peter Senge and recently receiving the backing of scientific evidence through the work of Judith E Glaser, The Ladder of Inference is a useful tool to use to see how you and others create individual meaning to the situation.

What does it mean to go up the ladder of inference?

It means that you have selected some of the data out of what you have heard, applied your own memories, experience, assumptions and beliefs to it, and then reached a conclusion or an opinion that you strongly feel right about.  You focus on defending your position which can cause you to become angry, anxious &/or frustrated.

What you can do?

The moment you notice that you have jumped to a conclusion or realised another person has, your best option is to redirect the conversation to why and how the conclusion was made.  The intention is to allow space for either you or the person you are talking to, to calm their old brain activity allowing the higher brains to be reactivated.

Questions that you can use on yourself or to help people move down the ladder of inference include:-

  • What has lead you to draw this conclusion?
  • What beliefs do you have about the situation?
  • What facts have you used?  What facts have you disregarded?
  • What assumptions are you using?
  • When I say ………… what do you understand it to mean?
  • What feelings are you experiencing?

The process is logical and conscious.  It creates a healthy conversation that leads to outcomes that all parties have contributed to.  It allows people to express what they are feeling using a common language and a simple framework.  You don’t need a complicated diagram, just a ladder with a few terms.

It is not the topic of the conversation that is the issue; it is how a person feels about it that matters.  Effective conversations provide the space to express and share thoughts and feelings.  Unfortunately in our time poor workplaces, we forget to provide this hence we end up dealing with miscommunication and misunderstanding.

We assume so much.

Some say its because of the amount of information that is available to us that our brains cannot process it.  Instead our we limit this by relying on what we already know and understand.  In today’s world, where creativity and flexibility can be the difference between success and failure, this limiting mindset is one to be aware of.

Practice using the ladder of inference on yourself when you find you are racing up the ladder.  Journal your thoughts and seek to identify patterns in your behaviour.  This will lead to useful insights that help you remain open rather than fixed and shut down.

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