change

Actions may speak louder than words, but what do we do when we just can’t seem to get our actions to line up with our words, no matter how hard we try?

Since March, we’ve been exploring a number of new insights, strategies, and approaches that you can apply to take your team towards high performance. These ideas have often been surprising, but they have all aligned with what we’ve observed at Summit in our decades of work with teams from around the world.

Another lesson that we’ve learned from our work, though, is the unfortunate truth that change is hard.

We try to present our clients with the most useful and up to date insights that have the potential to take their teams to whole new levels, and participants generally agree that those strategies are important and need to be applied in their workplace. The issue, though, is that most of the time, having both the knowledge and the willingness to change still isn’t enough.

You know what I’m talking about. We can learn about the importance of psychological safety, a learning culture, and leveraging our networks, and fully agree that we need to start implementing it in our lives. But when we go back to work and begin a new project, everything we’ve learned seems to go out the window. Why does that happen? Why is change so difficult?

Here’s a hint: it’s not because we don’t want it bad enough. And it’s not because we’re just not committed enough.

According to Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, who are both professors at Harvard, change is so difficult because of a hidden, unconscious dynamic.

They call it the “unrecognized competing results”. The idea is that even though we’ve openly committed to a new strategy, approach, or behaviour, we’re held back and have a hard time shaking off old, ineffective behaviors because we’re unknowingly committed to them in our minds. When we uncover the reason we’re so committed to the old behaviors, it becomes clear that it’s actually quite sensible and masterful – even if it is completely dysfunctional.

Let me share with you an example proposed by the researchers that fully captures this concept. Picture a project manager who claims to be fully committed to completing a project. When you talk to him, he tells you how important this project is to him, and how much he wants to be successful. But when you look at his work and his progress, it’s evident that he’s dragging his feet. Why is his explicit, stated commitment so drastically different from his actions?

Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey would argue that it’s because he’s unconsciously committed to something else. Perhaps, despite his explicit commitment to the project, deep down, he’s actually more committed to avoiding tougher assignments – one that he fears he can’t handle. He’s not sure what would come his way next if he delivers too successfully on this project.

Without recognizing this hidden dynamic, he’ll be stuck shoveling sand against the tide.

So what do we need to do? The most powerful solution appears to be bringing these issues to the surface, and confronting them head on.

Whether it’s a problem that we’re struggling with, or somebody in our team is, the question that we need to ask is, “What are we afraid of happening if we do succeed in implementing the change?” Often, this will reveal the hidden commitment that is unconsciously driving our behaviour, and hindering our progress in implementing the change.

Ultimately, it’s about growing in our self-awareness, and taking the time to find out what assumptions are influencing our actions without us knowing.

There’s a tremendous power that comes from becoming aware of the things that affect us without us knowing. Indeed, when we shine light on the hidden dynamics that hold us back, we’re able to take away its power over us.

Let Summit help your team navigate change and your leaders guide it. Check out our Navigating Change workshop.