It can be really hard to change. Most of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing something in a way that needs changing or improvement, which actually becomes a bigger hurdle than the problem behavior itself.

That’s because when you’ve been doing something the same way for many years, it somehow becomes part of who and how you are - part of your story.

Usually you get a sign - either direct feedback from someone or that incessant thought in the back of your mind - when you’re showing up, leading or acting in a way that isn't in line with your true values. And they’re usually small behaviors, not total overhauls of who we are. For example, talking over people in meetings, communicating vaguely, or taking a harsh tone with others when you’re frustrated.  

The good news is we aren’t totally hard-wired. We are tweakable - it’s hard work but doable. Here are three steps to changing small behaviors which, by the way, will have the biggest impact.

  1. Find an intrinsic reason WHY. I give this as a first “homework” to everyone I coach: Set aside 15 quiet minutes and dig dig dig to find your “why”. Why are you investing your precious time and money into coaching? Why will you be happier at the end of the day if you improve this? For some, this can be an emotional exercise. Your manager, colleague, coach or performance review can tell you that you need to change or improve in some way, but it really won’t matter until you’ve decided - from somewhere inside - that you want to change. You need to have a good reason you can hold on to. For some it’s about perception (“I can’t be that person who….”) and for others it comes from a deep desire for self-improvement (“I really want to be someone who...”). You might think the first example is the better of the two, but really, whatever gets you to be a better YOU is just fine. We’re all driven and motivated in different ways. Just do the requisite soul-searching, decide and commit.

  2. Make it hard to forget. One of my executive clients has a small monkey figurine on his desk. It’s meant to remind him to be more curious about other people - their personal lives, how they’re doing today, what they need help with. Our minds are powerful but we can’t always count on them to remember everything with so many inputs and to-do's. We have to make it easier to change and I would argue that requires some physical symbols in life. These reminders - whether it’s a picture of your family or a plant in your office - will bring you back to your “why” and help you respond in a way that’s more aligned to your values. The symbol can have absolutely nothing to do with what you want to change, but if you attach meaning to it, it will serve as a constant reminder.

  3. Tell someone! We tend to want to keep our development areas to ourselves, like they are something to be ashamed of. Guess what? Having development areas means you’re human and to be human is to be imperfect. I used to hang my development chart proudly in my office. I was ok with people knowing that I needed to get out of the weeds and be more strategic. Maybe they could help me be accountable. Tell a peer, a direct report or a friend that you’re really focusing on [fill in the blank] right now. Ask them to point out when you’re falling into old patterns or when you’re really nailing it. There is something refreshing about admitting when we need something. It can also have a pay-it-forward effect because those around us will realize that we can all improve and help one another improve. The end result will be a more compassionate, supportive workplace.

The truth is we don’t always get it right, because we’re human. But you can get it right 80% more of the time if you've decided it’s important enough and have set yourself up for success.