• Phil Cole

Why Do We Pick Behaviors That Don't Work?

We often pick behaviors that produce results we don’t like, or behaviors that use methods we aren’t comfortable with. But we keep doing the same behavior.

The classic example is the manager who uses anger to motivate and direct others. Something goes wrong and this person is red-faced, yelling and criticizing. The team eventually changes, but nobody is happy: not the members, who feel afraid and humiliated, nor the manager who feels out of control and frustrated. But this behavior will be repeated again and again.


Why?


These behaviors are learned.


As a young person, this individual saw others (parents, friends, coaches,) use this approach, tried it out, found it worked and has been practicing it ever since. It’s not fun – the person often feels guilty, out of control, or hurtful – but the behavior is so practiced that it comes without conscious thought.


The angry manager has practiced this behavior over and over until it is the easiest and most available option to get other people to do something that he or she wants. The results of the behavior aren’t comfortable, but the behavior itself is comfortable. Read that again, because it’s important: nobody is happy with the outcome of this behavior, including the leader who did it, but for that leader, the behavior is quickly accessible, easily performed, and therefore comfortable.


The solution is to understand three things about learning and leadership, things that we can’t see without the framework of a functional approach to leadership. The functional approach shows us:

  1. The behavior we are using is a choice, and it is designed to get others to do what we want.

  2. Other behavioral options that can accomplish the desired outcome more effectively, if we are willing and able to learn to perform them.

  3. The larger, meta-context of what people need to decide to do what we want, and the impact of behaviors on them.

We almost always lack knowledge of all three of these things, but we always repeat behaviors because we fail at least one of them. It is only when we understand all three that we can overcome the comfort of practiced, preferential behaviors and the discomfort of trying something new on our way to behavioral change.


We first recognize that the choice we make without any thought is in fact a choice. We then learn other behavioral options and practice the most useful options in ways that make them as easy to access as the learned but undesirable behavior. And, finally, we become able to see the organizational context to evaluate our behaviors and their impacts so that we can force ourselves to make hard yet more productive selections.


This knowledge and a structured process of learning allow us to move from unconsciously selecting behaviors because they are practiced and comfortable to consciously selecting behaviors because they produce the results we want.

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