Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Does Anyone Really Change?

About twenty years ago I was preparing a leadership development session for a Fortune 100 company when one of the company’s senior managers asked me a perfectly plausible question: “Does anyone who goes to these leadership sessions ever really change?” My candid answer was “I don’t know.” Although I had been conducting these sessions for years with dozens of companies, I had never followed up with my clients to see if, later on, they actually took the sessions to heart, did as I’d instructed, and became more effective leaders. So I began going back to many of my clients and assembled data that answered the question, “Does anyone ever really change?” Our original follow-up study included 86,000 respondents.  Our data base has now grown to more than 250,000 respondents. My conclusion is now unequivocal. Very few people achieve positive, lasting change without ongoing follow-up. Unless they know at the end of the day (or week or month) that someone is going to measure if they’re doing what they promised to do, most people fall prey to inertia. They continue doing what they were doing. They don’t change their behavior, and as a result, they don’t become more effective. On the other hand, if they know someone, like their coach, their co-workers, or their manager is watching—in the form of paying attention to them or caring about them, or evaluating them with follow-up questions—they’re more likely to change.  The key is measurement and follow up, in all their myriad forms.
Now, what if we didn’t have to rely on an “outside agent” such as a manager or executive coach to do follow-up that initiated real positive change? What if we could be that “change agent” for ourselves? What if there was a regimen where we could ask the follow-up questions and provide the answers to ourselves.
It is my firm belief that, if you journey through life knowing all of your activities will be evaluated on these two simple questions, you will tend to experience more happiness and meaning in each activity and, in the aggregate, you will have a happier and more meaningful life.
The simple knowledge that you’re going to evaluate any activity will alter your experience of that activity. It makes you more mindful and awake. The dynamic is no different than if you knew that you would be observed and graded by your manager on a task. Chances are that you would perform the task better than if you knew there would be no evaluation. That’s human nature. We’ve obeyed it since we were little kids in school, goofing off when the teacher left the room and instantly resuming our best behavior when the teacher returned. We’re more alert to how we behave, perform, and appear to others when we know someone is judging us. The only difference in this experiment is that you are the one asking the questions and doing the evaluation.
I’m convinced that this ritual of self-directed follow-up works because I’ve seen it work both in my coaching practice and in my own life. The mere act of evaluating an activity forces you to break the pattern of inertia enveloping that activity.
For example, you’re curious about a subject—say, vacations in the south of France—so you fire up your laptop and type in a few key words at a search engine such as Google or Bing. Then you start sifting through the results. An hour later, you’re still in front of the screen, not much smarter about vacations in the south of France but still clicking and reading and clicking and reading. In fact, you may have completely forgotten about ‘vacations in France’ and aimlessly wandered through countless other topics! If you’re like millions of sentient adults with a laptop and wireless access, it’s quite possible that this activity—mindless net-surfing—takes up more hours of your time than you realize or can afford to spare. But if you knew in advance that one hour later you would be evaluating your net-surfing according to how much short-term satisfaction and long-term benefit it provided you, I suspect it would either (a) make you think twice about going online in the first place, or (b) make you use your time online with more discipline and more focus on its short- and long-term benefits.
That’s the power behind this exercise in self-directed follow-up. It not only tells us what’s working after the fact, but it also makes us think about our actions before the fact.
I’ve recently adopted this method in regards to my own time surfing the internet. Before I allow myself to get lost for an hour in a pointless cascade of links and screens, I now ask myself these two questions–“How much happiness am I going to get from this hour? How much meaning will come from the next hour?” Sometimes I’ll conclude that going online will deliver short-term satisfaction or long-term benefit—because I need the information and the search will be instructive. But many times I realize that I’ll just be doing it as a low-strain alternative to getting back to more important activities. I’ll be wasting my time. Whatever I conclude, the self-examination instructs my behavior: I either abandon the activity or find a way to extract more satisfaction and benefit from it.
It’s such a simple strategy that it’s tempting to discount its utility. But you’ll be surprised at how effective it is in increasing the happiness and meaning in your life. Let me give you a couple of related examples:

Life is good.


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