Real Change or Perception: Can Leaders Change Their Behaviors?

Can leaders change their behavior or are they merely perceived as changing because we followed up? 

This is one of the most common questions that people ask Marshall Goldsmith about his coaching process — and the answer is kind of the opposite of what you might believe. 

It’s easier to change behavior than change perception

One of the best research principles in psychology is called the Cognitive Dissonance Theory. According to the theory, we all perceive people in a manner that’s consistent with our previous stereotype. We don’t necessarily see what’s there, we see what we think is there. 

Here’s a question for you. 

What does the 10 and the 4 look like in a Roman-numeral watch? 

Most people will answer that 10 is an X and the 4 is an IV. 

Now, look closely at the Roman numeral watch or clock, 98% of the time, the 4 is not an IV, it’s four I’s. Even those who own the clock and look at it every day can’t see what’s there. Why? We don’t see what’s there, we see what we think is supposed to be there.

How is it related to behavioral change?

Now here’s an example of how this is related to behavioral change. Let’s say that you have a habit of making destructive comments about the people you work with and you’re trying to change that. 

In situation A, you go seven months without making a destructive comment about anyone. But one day, something ticked you off and a co-worker heard you make a destructive comment. In the mind of your co-workers, they will simply deem that you have not changed. 

In situation B, you tell your co-worker that you want to stop making negative comments and become a team player, asking them to provide you with ideas for the future. Do you think your co-workers will believe that you’re going to change? Not necessarily. 

However, if you constantly practice these good techniques at home, what happens is in two months, when we do the follow-up, your co-worker will say “You’re doing a good job, keep it up”

It’s been four months now, you haven’t made any hurtful comments about anyone. So your co-workers will say the same thing, “keep it up.” Now, it’s been six months and your coworkers say, “you know, to be honest, I didn’t think you’d change at all. It’s been six months, you’ve worked very hard, I’m proud of you, keep it up”

But in the seventh month, you got angry and made a negative comment. Your co-worker will say “You know, you shouldn’t have said that. You went seven months without doing that”. And you answered “You’re right, I’m going to apologize”

In situation A, did behavior change? Yes. Did perception change? No. 

In situation B, did behavior change? Yes. Did perception change? Yes. 

What is the key difference between the two situations? The involvement of the stakeholders in your leadership development process. 

So going back to the initial question, “Can leaders change their behavior?” The answer is definitely yes, because if they didn’t change, we would never get paid (and we almost always get paid). 

In major organizations, even a small positive change in behavior can have a big impact. In fact, the simple fact that the executive is trying to change their behavior itself may be even more important than the behavior they’re trying to change. 

One key message that Marshall Goldsmith shared with the CEOs he coached is “To help others develop – start with yourself.”




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