Even the best-intentioned leaders can struggle when it comes to taking action on development feedback. As anyone who works with leaders on evolving their behaviors knows, it is not uncommon to encounter resistance when it comes time to move from feedback to behavior change.

Why does this matter? Because, as we see all too often in the leaders we work with, the inability to develop those leadership qualities that are holding them back has bottom line implications on their ability to execute on strategy, deliver on revenue, create value, and follow through on what’s required to drive their businesses. And while it is ultimately up to an individual leader to make the choice to change, there are ways to help them think differently about the journey.

Let’s take our experience. When we work with clients to take action on their feedback on the Bates ExPI, we sometimes get resistance to the question: “what are 1 or 2 new behaviors you will try as a result of your feedback?”

For example, someone whose feedback indicates they are losing influence because they do not speak up might say, “I’m an introvert so I can’t speak up sooner in team meetings.” Or if someone gets feedback that a lack of a compelling vision is harming their perception as a high potential leader, they may respond, “I can’t do that. It’s not in my personality to be visionary.”

It is not unusual to hear the excuse, “I can’t do that. It would not be me”.

Overcoming the hurdle: creating the choice

The great, pioneering organizational psychologist Edie Seashore, when she faced a person (or a team) that said,” Oh, I can’t do that”, would respond “Up until now!”

That is, when she heard such self-limiting statements, she would reframe the situation from “can’t” to “haven’t.” It isn’t that they can’t speak up sooner, it is they have made a choice not to.

There might be a number of “good” reasons the person doesn’t speak up. Maybe meetings are dominated by a few loud voices. Maybe everyone else in the meeting is more experienced or more senior. There are always “good” reasons.

But, these leaders are also paying a price for not speaking up. Their feedback has made that clear. So, it would seem they have a choice. But, in their minds they don’t, because they think “I can’t do that.” They are limiting the possibility (more like eliminating the possibility) of change by convincing themselves they can’t.

They are choosing to limit their potential. They have convinced themselves that speaking up is too hard or is not consistent with who they are. 

Reframing the choice

We have found that often the fear of having to behave in a way that isn’t “them” is based on a leader’s assumptions or misconceptions of what that behavior actually entails. For example, many people think that speaking up in a meeting means making a proposal or challenging someone else’s idea. So, they are convinced they can’t do that. What they haven’t thought of is that speaking up could mean just asking a question or making an observation. When we suggest this as an alternate way to participate, “Oh, maybe I could do that” is a frequent response. They have always wanted to get into the conversation but didn’t know how to speak up in a way that doesn’t feel so foreign to who they are.

But, there are some instances where we still get resistance to trying a new behavior.  What often works in this case is to ask, “What is it about the status quo that is of benefit to you?”  That is, what is the benefit to them of not speaking up.

Often people will respond that if they don’t speak up they can’t appear stupid, say something wrong, or make a mistake. What is interesting is that in our experience, is that 100% of the time, their ExPI feedback does not indicate others perceive their ideas as stupid. Quite the contrary, they typically receive comments about how people want to hear from them more. In addition, others often perceive their silence as a sign of disengagement and a lack of commitment.

But these “rational”, data-based arguments don’t necessarily work since the problem is not what others actually perceive, but their own fear of being seen as stupid.  They would rather be seen as disengaged than as stupid.

In the end, it comes down to a choice.  Is their priority to enhance their executive presence and influence, or is their priority to avoid the fear of saying something stupid?  It is an intentional choice. The choice is either they won’t try the new behavior, or they will.

The point isn’t that there is a right answer. The point is to make an intentional choice.

The role of a coach is to help reframe the choice to give people the support they need to try new behaviors.

Think of a behavior for which you want to be able to say, “Up until now!”

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